Thursday, March 03, 2011

Trust Me, I’m a Reader: Writing for Your Audience

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
“Trust your reader.” You hear it all the time, but what exactly does that mean? Do you just assume they’ll figure out what you mean? That can lead to confusion, which you certainly don’t want, so what’s a writer to do? Who do they really trust?

Believe in Yourself

Trusting your reader is all about believing that they can and will pick up on the things you leave as clues in your story. Not just mystery-type clues, but hints about backstory, world building, characterization, etc. The things you write and then wonder, “Will my reader get this or do I need to explain more?”

As someone who writes for teens, I face this every time I sit down to write. My youngest readers are ten years old, my oldest are adults. While I want every age to be able to sit down and enjoy my books, if I write for the adult audience, there’s a pretty good chance I’ll leave my younger readers behind. What each of those readers pick up on is different.

Adults have a larger world experience. We’ve seen it all, know how stories go, anticipate and expect. But younger readers are still building their experiences and don’t have the same pool to draw from. What’s obvious to an adult who’s seen it before isn’t obvious to a teen who hasn’t.

This is where that whole “know your audience” thing plays a role, because you have to know who you’re writing to, to know how to trust them.

I did a workshop years ago with one of my fantasy novels. There were folks in that group who didn’t read fantasy, so a lot of what I was doing was lost on them. They didn’t “speak fantasy,” so common tropes and devices flew right past them. Naturally, they asked for clarification in their critiques, and I looked hard at what they said, but most of the time I ignored it. What they wanted was something that would be obvious to a fantasy reader. Explaining it would be like explaining to a modern reader how a telephone works.

Other times they pinpointed something that seemed logical to me as a fantasy writer, but when I looked closer, I realized that I could do more there, and I was excluding those who were new to fantasy, but wanted to read more of it. These comments were very valuable, as they helped me make my book more accessible.

To trust your reader, you have to first know your reader, and to do that, you need to know who you’re writing for.

Who is your reader?

“Everyone who likes books” isn’t a good answer, because it’s not true. I love books, but there are genres I don’t read. If your book is one of them, your book isn’t for me. I write fantasy for teens and ’tweens. My readers are in the 10 to 17 range.

What does this tell you?

Who your reader is tells you how much you need to explain. I know my youngest reader is 10 (and sometimes lower) so I need to make sure that my story can be understood and grasped by a ten-year-old reader. I’m not writing down to them, but I’ll make sure that the concepts, vocabulary, themes, etc. are all things they’ll understand, or can easily look up or ask about if need be. (Part of writing for younger readers is to encourage them to learn). So sometimes, things will seem obvious to my adult readers who happen to like teen fiction. But I won’t make it harder to understand to satisfy them because they aren’t my target reader. And if they enjoy teen fiction, then they already know that sometimes, stuff is obvious to adults.

Genre plays a role

As I mentioned earlier, every genre has its own set of rules and its own language. Fans of that genre know these rules and speak these languages. They get how things work in that genre. You can just do it and they’ll get it.

Where the line?

This is the hard part, knowing what’s too much and what’s not enough. In a first draft, I err on the side of caution and explain things. (In a show way, not a tell way) Sometimes you don’t know where the best spot for those clarifications are, so I put them in where they feel right and edit out later. If you have a good crit partner or group, they can provide valuable insight into where you need more or less info. If you’re on your own, then let your manuscript sit for a month or two before you revise. Then read through it in one or two sittings.

I’ve found that repetition jumps right off the page when I’m reading large chunks after some time away. I get that “I just read this” feeling and know that’s an area I might not need that info. I can mark or cut it and know that by that point in the story, readers will get what I mean because I already explained it earlier.

The reverse is also true. I’ll spot things and get that, “Wait, did I ever say that?” feeling and wonder if I ever told readers about it. It’s easy to go back and find the first reference and clarify.

When you’re not sure?

If you just aren’t sure if they’ll get it, go ahead and add a little. Key word: little. A word or two, a line, a detail that nudges in the right direction. Resist the urge to spell it out, because those are usually the areas where you tell too much and trust too little. Pay particular attention to what you say. You want things that suggest, not state outright.

Spelling it out

You can also look for areas in which you do spell it out. Common trouble spots here are in the emotional or motivational areas. Writers often do a great job of showing why, then doubt themselves and add in a told “this is why” statement at the end.

No, it couldn’t be. Bob shook his head, but the thought wouldn’t leave. Jane, betray him? No way. He just couldn’t believe she’d do that to him.
See that there on the end? “He just couldn’t believe she’d do that to him.” Isn’t it pretty clear from his reaction that he feels that way? It shows how Bob feels and why, then I go and muck it all up by telling you what I just showed you.

It’s hard to know when it’s too much, but the tendency is to over explain, not under. When you find yourself thinking, “Will they get that?” look back for the clues that will allow the reader to get it. If you find them, don’t worry about it. If you don’t, then add a few.

And trust that your reader will get it.

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. Great post. Thanks for the tips. This is a hard one. I write YA and MG also and I found that I have a tendency to explain. Thanks for reminding me not to.

  2. Fun, Janice! I really like your point about how writing for young people gets them to learn. Nice article.

  3. Great post, and I definitely have to watch the `explain it twice' thing.

  4. Dawn: Happy to help. Even when I *know* what I'm supposed to do, I sometimes slack off or forget, so I love reminders to keep me sharp.

    Juliette: Thanks!

    Chicory: Those suckers do sneak in, don't they?

  5. Man, I don't know how you do it! Every post you do seems to be chock full of handy tips and things to think about.

  6. Great things to think about, especially for those of us writing for the younger reader. The stories needs to be accessible,but you're right, we can't cater to everyone.

  7. Janice, you are so right one this, but believe me, there are times when you can under-explain things too, and it can be just as frustrating for readers as being "Told what to think."

    This problem can be further challenging if you aren't around your target readers often, or at all, and get frustrated with figuring out what's really over their heads and what adults Imagine what's over their heads.

    In my old critique group, I can't tell you how many times I've been told something to the effect of "You should spell this out so kids can get it" while at the same time being consoled with, "Trust your reader, they'll get more than you think" all in the same story, and often, the same point of the story will be seen different by others in the group.

    Also, you can run the danger of being stereotypical about who your readers are, and the signs aren't always obvious to your critique group anymore than it is to you.

    I know there are many kids and teens half my age, or younger, who read and understand things I still struggle to wrap my head around, but it doesn't make them better than me in every way, nor does it always speak to my slow crawl towards self-sufficient living, even though it just feels that way sometimes.

    Especially when many people my age are further ahead in their education and overall success, while I'm still the, "Freeloader living at home" who despite his lack of degrees can do more than what minimum wage jobs suggests.

    Plus, why society thinks people who don't or haven't made it to college all excel at cleaning and working in fast food, is a mystery to me.

    Before anyone tells me, "That's the way it is" like my grandma does at least once a week, remember that it doesn't mean it's correct.

    Otherwise, we'd still be living a male-dominated, racist, children seen but not heard, and sexist existence all over the world.

    America, as we now know it, despite it's flaws and corruption both hidden and ignored, are still striving toward things many countries and their leaders still don't do, or at least try to do.

    Where women and children are still treated like trash for no good reason, people are enslaved and spit on, figuratively and for real.

    Where disagreeing with the way your homeland and it's people is governed gets you instant death or tortured as if you were a serial killer or terrorist.

    Where people with mental illness are either, "Dumb beyond teaching" or deranged "Monsters" who don't have the same feelings, dreams, and nightmares as any other sane living soul.

    ...Okay, I went on my soapbox again, sorry. I recently watched Oprah's Master Class profile of Maya Angelou and it got me inspired. It's actually part of helped me get out of the hole of pain and jealousy I dug myself in.

    It reminded me how much I love to read, and how vital writing is to me, even if I never get published. In the traditional sense anyway.

    But I'd still love to know what else I'm good at. Unless my personality does a severe 180, any career in the military or politics is out, so barring those worlds, what else is out there for me?

    It's something I'm determined to find some answers for this year. Maybe if I wasn't painfully shy in public, didn't talk chipmunk auctioneer, and not deathly sensitive, I might've been a social activist, and maybe I was one in a former life if this editorial of mine's any indicator.

    Getting back on topic, the opposite of underestimate is overestimate. It happens more often than you first think.

    Anyway, keep up the good work, Janice.


  8. Well,

    I am not sure, I intend to write so that I can enjoy writing. If i just change my style / my way for readers then where is the originality in me? where do I get the fun in writing??

    There are tips with regards to language, word-building and so on in this post. Thanks for the same.

    but if you intend to writer for the love of writing then, don't be worried about your readers. The way to failure is to try to please every third grader out there. I am not gonna do it.

    with warm regards

  9. AMP, I'm with you.

    But I think what Janice was getting at was simply to think about whether readers understand what you're doing when you write about something that's not obvious, especially in science fiction and fantasy based in fictional worlds or alternate realities where the rules of our "Reality" get turned on the head.

    While we all might have some grasp on the basics of gravity on Earth, how many of us non-scientists and science fanatics are going to know all the little intricacies, and even exceptions, to our basic knowledge of Earth's gravity that may play a big part in science fiction novel. I won't.

    Another example closer to home for me, I love baking, but do I fully understand the exact science behind why sourdough bread is so tricky to make come out well versus tasting like edible cement? No.

    That doesn't hinder my love of baking one bit, and one day I hope to better learn the chemistry behind baking, since I want to develop my own recipes from scratch for breads, cookies, cakes and the like.

    Like Janice said in her article, readers new to the genre your writing about may get hung up or confused on things die-hard readers of the genre understand without needing to be handheld through it.

    If you're fine with not making writing one of your careers, that's fine, but if like me, you want to reach the widest readership possible if you want to publish some of your writing, you can't always disregard it.

    It's just something to be careful about. Just try not to let it make you paranoid, and I know that's WAY easier said than done, but I've been there more than I like admitting.

    Trust me, it ain't fun for you, anymore than it is for the readers.

    What do you think, Janice? Am I reading you right on this?


  10. Shannon: Thanks! I try my best to find tips in every post. That's the stuff I like to find, too.

    Amanda: You really can't, and trying to only hurts the story.

    Taurean: That's one reason it's so important to read books in your target market. You'll see what's out there and what's normal for that audience. And you won't hit the target with every reader every time, and that's okay. It's a guideline.

    Allmyposts: You don't have to, and you shouldn't try to please everyone. That IS a road to failure. I'm not saying change your style or your way of writing. Heck, you don't even have to do anything in this article if you don't want too. It's your book, write the way you want it. What I am saying is that knowing your audience is good and writing to that audience is good. If you're writing for yourself, that's your audience. Write to please yourself. If you're writing for fun, write for that. But if you're writing with the intent to publish, there ARE things you can do to better your chances, and one of those ways is to know your market and write something that will appeal to that market. How you do that is up to you and what you do with it is up to you. If you want to write what you like and hope there's a market for it, do that. It risks lowering your chances at publication, but there's nothing wrong with doing it that way if that's what you prefer.

    Taurean: More or less. Writing is something you can do for fun. Publishing is a business. If the goal is to just write, so whatever you want and have fun. If the goal is to publish, there are business details to think about. You don't want to cater to the market or write for the market, but you do need to understand the market and how your book will fit into that. Something that can't be easily placed in a bookstore is going to be hard to sell, no matter how good it is. There are tons of good books out there waiting to be published. A good book that fits easily into the market and knows exactly who their target reader (and buyer) is will very likely be bought over a good book that doesn't fit on the shelves easily and can't be marketed or promoted easily because the target reader isn't clear.

    But honestly, this is a whole different post, so I might have to do a followup article. Trusting your reader and writing for your audience are slightly different beats.

  11. I guess, but they can seem so intertwined. Really, they can.

    Anyway Janice, don't worry, I'm not depressed again, I was just trying to clarify what I thought you meant as I wasn't sure AMP understood.

    If you did, AMP, sorry if I seemed defensive or condescending, nether was my intention.

    I will say this Janice, knowing what's hot in the market and writing a book to fit in said market, without being lame, not easy, even though it's obviously not impossible.

    Yes, I know we can write for fun and be content with that, but I also know I want to break into publishing, and trust me, I know more than I often can stomach in regards to market research and trends, but still, my name has to go on it, and I have to feel good about the final product.

    After all, do you think the best books of the last decade would be as great as they are or sell like they do if the writer didn't love what the final product became?

    Yes, it was edited and redone eight ways to Sunday before and after the writer sold it, but this book represents you, the writer, just as much as the editor, agent and publisher backing it.

    That's all I was getting at. I didn't meant to insult anyone.

    That follow up article would be a good idea though, Janice, I should do one for T.A.A. next week, and maybe when you do yours, we can compare and contrast.

    Anything to make the writers after us less vexed and confused as we were at the outset. Well, me anyway. You don't hit the panic button nearly as often, at least in public, and I'm trying to get better with that.

  12. There are so many things you can do with writing that it can be tough to navigate through it. Everyone has moments of panic, and moments when they feel lost. And I doubt that ever really changes no matter what stage you're at.

  13. I know, but I admire you and other writers for not overdoing the angst (In public) as I tend to do, sometimes to my own surprise, and next to query letters, this is my biggest weakness that I want to improve.

    That's really what I was getting at.

  14. Gotcha :) That is something to work on. What we say publicly is out there forever. You don't want to build public profile that shows you in a negative light.

  15. What about multi-genres? My characters work together. The locations are real, the stories are based on things that may really have happed in the readers' lives, but the stories are fiction. So I guess I write contemporary fiction. But what my characters do after hours is what's so diverse. One's a cowboy, one's a cop, one's a seamstress & one speaks "Spanglish". The main question I have is about jargen. When, where or how often should I explain something that's different to the others, such as a hackamore?

    1. That's tough to answer, since it's hard to know what experience your readers will have. For example, I grew up around horses, so I know what that is. But someone who never rode probably doesn't.

      I'd suggest aiming for using it in context so readers can get the general idea. So maybe you'd have your character slip the hackamore over the horse's ear and toss the reins on the saddle horn or something. It would say "bridle" enough to keep readers on board without stopping to explain.

      Though sometimes, you *do* need to pause for an explanation. Keeping it in the character's voice and making it sound like a thought (or dialogue) more than an author explanation.

      It can also help if a character doesn't know and asks, though be wary of writing "as you know Bob" dialogue. If someone asks, make sure it fits the scene and is a legitimate question, not something just to provide information.

  16. Sasha Anderson6/03/2020 7:47 AM

    "I did a workshop years ago with one of my fantasy novels. There were folks in that group who didn’t read fantasy, so a lot of what I was doing was lost on them. They didn’t “speak fantasy,” so common tropes and devices flew right past them. Naturally, they asked for clarification in their critiques, and I looked hard at what they said, but most of the time I ignored it. What they wanted was something that would be obvious to a fantasy reader. Explaining it would be like explaining to a modern reader how a telephone works."

    If you have any examples of this, I'd love to see them!

    1. I don't, since those types of goofs don't usually get published. But imagine if you were reading a novel set in today's world and someone wrote...

      John reached for the telephone--it was an ingenious device that allowed him to speak into a a microphone, then transported his voice over any distance. Someone on another phone could simply "answer" it and hear him as if he was standing in the room.

      That's explaining known details to someone who knows what the author is talking about.

      Most science fiction readers are familiar with faster than light tech, or battle armor, or how jump gates work. Fantasy readers know the standard fantasy races, such as elves, dwarves, orgees, and whatnot. If the author said "Magic does X" then they go with it, and usually don't need a lesson on how the magic works.

      Does that help?

    2. Sasha Anderson6/05/2020 8:17 AM

      Yeah, thanks :)

      I wasn't expecting published stuff, just examples of 'things they said needed more clarification, but they were wrong'. So you got critiques like "You should tell us what an elf is" or "You need to explain how magic is possible", is that it?

      Just trying to understand which things the non-fantasy readers flagged up - but you've given some examples, thanks :)

    3. It was more specific to my fantasy world, but essentially, yes. My non-fantasy critique readers didn't understand common tropes of the fantasy genre and asked me to explain them in the story.