Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Faith in Equal Powers

Okay, everyone, repeat after me: My reader is not an idiot.

The readers of books are intelligent, rational beings (you know, in general. I'm allowing for a certain degree of wingnuttery in counting as rational). They aren't idiots. And we shouldn't treat them like they are.

Since reader's are a clever bunch, they get what the writer is telling them. Often the first time around. Sometimes, it bears repeating, especially if it's a complex point or one that's been building up over multiple scenes, or is really important. But, by the third time, the reader's pretty much got it.

We've got to trust our reader's to know what we're saying. If we don't trust them, they'll be able to tell, and they'll just upset, chuck the book on the floor, and read something else that treats them with a little more respect. The repetition makes a reader want to say, "Yep, got it. Not an idiot over here. Move it along." It's not nice to treat people like they aren't smart enough to understand.

I'm super-guilty of this. I'm looking back over the Thief Book, and I think I repeated the basic point (not a very important one, mind you. Just a bit of info I intend to reference later) about 9 times in the first 5 chapters. Even I wanted to say, "People aren't stupid. They get it." So there's plenty of crossings out on those marks.

I'm not claiming that every reader is a rocket scientist/neurosurgeon/creator of literary masterpieces the likes of which I cannot fathom capable of comprehending incredibly complicated schemes the first time through with only minor explanations. But, I am saying that you should treat the reader like your intellectual equal. Have faith that they can grasp things as well as you can.

Things should be explained in relationship to their level of complexity (at least once, most of the time), repeated often as necessary (one rinse and repeat often doesn't hurt), and summed up neatly if the occasion warrants it (which, if you're schemes been put together over several scenes, might bed the case).

For more discussion on trusting your reader, click here.

Do you trust your reader? Do you feel you sometimes don't put enough faith in the reader? Do you put too much faith in them?


  1. Interesting question. I think I trust my reader enough, it's me I don't trust. Like you, I belabored the point that my heroine was in trouble, with a prologue, and a horrible first two chapters which told the story again. When I did the final revisions, I took all that out and jumped into the story. I decided to let the reader, like the hero, figure out what was going on.

  2. This can be an especially fine line to walk writing picture books because you have to trust not only that the child can grasp what you are trying to say but that the illustrator can pick up on the nuances and feel of each scene.

    Great post.

  3. Good point. I think it's such a fine balance--we are definitely guilty of not giving quite enough at times. I think it has something to do with Lisa and I always talking through our stories. I mean, we get it, why don't you? Um, because we didn't write it in!

  4. Great questions! I've written a lot of short stories and once in a while, through critiques, I realize my readers didn't "get" what I was saying. Not usually the big picture -- that comes across fine. But the subtleties I weave through the story in the form of themes, symbolisms, and even some characterizations often get missed, or misconstrued. This isn't an intelligence issue, mind you. I think it's more an artistic issue (maybe?). I'm a reader that loves delving between a masterful author's lines, and I naturally write what I'd like to read. Not everyone likes that sort of thing, though. LOL. Sometimes you just want an easy, mindless read, right?

    Great post!

  5. This is so true. I think this is the best piece of advice for all writers. We need to trust the reader to make their own decisions and decide what's important.

    Great post!

  6. I know my first drafts are a little condescending to my readers, but I try to fix that during rewrites/revisions.

  7. This is great advice. It's tempting to try to beat our readers over the head with a point, but that will just tick them off, lol.

    btw, you have a little gift over at my blog today. :)

  8. Very true, though I am guilty of the repetition on the micro level. Where I say the same thing twice but in two different ways. It's an evil that always lingers in my first draft.

  9. My greatest shortcoming as a writer is that I repeat myself. A lot.

    And I left an award for you on my blog. :)

  10. Piedmont -- I think you made a good choice with your story to let the reader figure out the case with the hero. That way it's harder to belabor the point and it builds the tension.

    Karen -- Yes, I imagine it would be harder with a picture book. Trusting an illustrator, for me, would be even harder than trusting a reader.

    LnL -- I think you've hit the flip side right on the head. We all have to walk the line of "they didn't write the book, so they don't know what was in your head" and "they can read and remember what you mention."

    Nicole -- I think symbolism is one of those special cases, because it's a fairly subjective thing unless a clear pattern exists. However, characterization should, hopefully, be clear.

    Elena -- Thanks.

    Susan -- Yes, revisions are our friends, even if they're painful.

    Roni -- Why thank you. :)

    Girl -- It's okay to have a little evil in the first draft. That's why we have revision.

    Stephanie -- Thank you. :)

  11. When I read a story with this repetition, I'm seeing too much of the author's hand, which we shouldn't see at all. As a writer, I think I trust my reader to pick up pieces and put things together, when necessary. A great question that we don't see asked too often!

  12. Thank you for writing this; it's a great post.

    Readers bring their own set of lived biographical experiences, their own preconceptions, their own sets of cultural mores, and their own lenses and intelligences to anything they read.

    I honestly believe my readers get what I'm trying to tell them without my berating the point. And I think it all comes down again to honesty and respect for your story, your characters, your process, yourself and your readers.

    So once I made a conscious effort to really make my words work on the page, justify their presence and not just spray them around scattershot, I really believe cutting down on my verbiage made me a better writer.

  13. Joanne -- It's interesting that you describe the repetition as evidence of the author's hand. I hadn't thought of it that way.

    Sarahjayne -- Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you feel you're making progress as a writer. :)