know your reader

Back in the day, when I was guilty of committing journalism, one mantra that was supposed to guide my work was “know your reader.” Has there ever been a more impossible bit of advice than that?

I think the idea is that you must understand what your reader knows, wants, and needs. How smart they are. The range of their vocabulary. Their political leanings. Their attitudes and preconceptions. Their bedrock and their areas open to reflection. Or something like that. Once you know all of that about all of your potential readers, you encapsulate it. Then you a) deliver it, b) challenge it,  or c) ignore it and write what you want. But how can you really know the reader, much less a group of readers? Far less a group of anonymous readers who inconveniently do not fit into pigeon holes?

Certainly those who partake of recognized faux news outlets, those who have a tightly focused interest in a particular arcane subject, and others are ofttimes more easily identifiable, and you can somewhat “know your reader” and thus pander appropriately. But in my experience, the net is cast far wider than this for most writing, and I think this is even more true for fiction.

Yes, there are fiction readers who favor genre writing, and most genres have their conventions. (By “genre” I mean things like romance or crime or mystery or western or speculative fiction and not the broader definition I’ve seen lately of short story or poetry or flash.) Yet I suggest that even such genres have so much diversity in them, so many subcultures of readership, that their readers do not lend themselves to easy categorization. (And the iconoclast in me feels that such genre conventions should be shaken up anyway.)

Yet for the writing I’m trying to steer my humble abilities toward — general literary fiction — I think the readership is so amorphous that there is no point in trying to target it. And not only that, but this genre definition seems so broad that a vast diversity of approaches to story telling seem to fit. I try reading journals to see what kind of fiction they publish, and I often see work that is different from what I do. I read the work of friends and see that the kind of general literary fiction they write is often different from what I do. I’m not saying I’m a misfit (that’s for you to decide) but that I am one among thousands of individuals. I do what I can until I’m satisfied — and thus I guess I know at least that reader — and then send it out, sometimes almost blindly. And I think the closest I can come to knowing my reader is knowing the kind of fiction a given editor publishes.

So I don’t even try to know my reader anymore. I write the stories I have, to the best of my humble ability, and then try to find them homes. I suppose that sounds like blasphemy to some, but it’s a place I’ve arrived at after years of effort and rumination.

I read somewhere — and I wish I could find the source — the each person’s life, even the most simple person you know, is like an entire book, and the best you can ever hope to know is a few pages from their book. I think for the most part, that is true. And if so, then what hope can you have to know a reader, a reader you have never met, who lives on the other side of this planet we are on, who brings his or her own lifetime of experiences to reading and understanding your story?

And if this reader is taking the time to read what you’ve poured some of your own heart and soul into, then maybe the table should turn and you should give them the chance to come to know you a little better.

What do you think? (and I know you think cuz I’ve read your blogs and stories)

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3 Comments on “know your reader”

  1. pete29anderson Says:

    Don’t write for any reader. Write whatever preoccupies you, however you see fit. My only qualification to that is I always try to tone down arcane vocabulary. If the average reader probably doesn’t know what a specific word means, I use a simpler and more common word instead. Oh, and no foreign dialogue. I hate when I read stuff like that, especially when the meaning isn’t obvious.

  2. I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I agree with this wholeheartedly. The writers that stand out for so many people when asked, “Who are your favorite writers?” are often icons, in part, because they were different. They wrote what they wanted and then, when they became known, it wasn’t like, “Hey, that’s selling…I’ll mimic it and make a killing!” like a lot of popular fiction written by formula with an audience in mind. (Even test audiences at that!)

    I’ll never fault someone for reading to escape. I still don’t understand the popularity of things like Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray, but I could never see myself writing for an audience like that. I have no problem with thrillers or other genres, but the formula of it all seems like a tiring thing to write over and over and over. The last novel I finished has a bit of a mystery running through it; some suggested I make the book all about the mystery, but other readers came to realize it’s as much about the tiny town as the people living there.

    I sometimes struggle with having a day job and writing fiction…not so much finding time to write, but wanting more time to focus on fiction and longer walks/hikes and even more thinking and reading. It’s something I’d like to lose myself in. But…the day job affords a certain luxury some friends who make a living writing and doing art don’t have: I never have to work on a licensed property that doesn’t interest me to pay the bills. I don’t have to think, “Is this marketable?” The day job affords the ability to write whatever it is I want to write. Whether it finds an audience or not isn’t the most important thing to me, and I like writers where that sentiment seems to come through in their work.

  3. melinda Says:

    Sometimes I feel like I barely know myself – much less my reader!

    Honestly, I feel like I’m doing pretty we sometimes to just get the crazy stories out of my head. If I allow myself to get caught up in “musts” (like “you must write a story that is xyz length”, “you must know your reader”, “you must enjoy every minute you write”, etc.) then my mind just shuts down and I can’t get anything done. I write, and it is what it is. I can’t make it be anything else.

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