Friday, July 08, 2011

Writing for Yourself vs. Writing for Your Reader

For years, I told myself that the only person I needed to write for was myself. I was my own best audience, not to my easiest critic (well, some of the time) and number one fan.

During these years, I wrote a great many historical romance manuscripts and, contrary perhaps to your first assumption, I did spend a lot of time revising and editing my work. But I also spent a lot of time re-reading my novels for pleasure. That was a BIG mistake.

When I stopped reading my own writing critically, I stopped being a writer and started being a reader. I was my only audience for a good reason. Those manuscripts stagnated. But no problem, I told myself. I could always write another. And another. And another. I also treated all of these manuscripts in the same disastrous way.

I was, in other words, a doting and smothering parent to my little darlings. It wasn’t good for them. In fact, it spoiled them rotten.

In the last few years, I have shifted my focus. I did this in a few ways.

Start with your target audience

I started writing contemporary romances with a specific series in mind. Fortunately, during the same period, I read literally hundreds of titles in this series and by the same publisher so I was well versed in what worked and what the editors would be expecting from a successful submission.

Yes, I know, the audience is really the reader, not the publisher but this is the necessary first step. Besides, who knows their reader better than the people at the publishing house? They spend the big bucks on research and marketing so why not take advantage of their expertise, albeit secondhand?

Do the research

Read everything your target publisher has put out about their audience. Read what other writers in the genre are saying about their readers. Read what the readers are saying on their blogs.

Get into the mindset of your ideal reader before you even put a word down on the page.

Keep your reader on your shoulder 

Think of that cartoon devil and angel who sit on a character’s shoulder and tell them what they should (and shouldn’t) do. That’s your reader. She (or he) sits on your shoulder (or on top of your head) and reads your work assessingly. The keyword is “assessingly”.

Periodically throughout your writing, say at the end of each chapter, think clearly about how the chapter has progressed and where the story is heading next. Think about your research and evaluate whether your writing style, language, voice, characters, behaviours of the characters and plot is in keeping with what you’ve learned about your target audience.

In this way, you can catch any digressions from your main purpose of pleasing your target reader before you travel too far off course. This can save you time and heartache later when you find yourself at the end of a manuscript that started going off the rails in chapter three.

Look at your draft as a reader

Perform your initial revisions and edits as normal.

Then, after you’ve cleaned up and re-worked your manuscript to get it into workable shape, put it away for a few days. Yes, that’s right, hands off the pages and step away from the computer. Finger off of that delete key, buster!

Let the manuscript slip out of your consciousness.

In a few days, come back to it and read it again, all the way through, without doing any edits. This should be done with a hard copy, coming as close to possible to the experience your reader will have.

After you’ve read it, set the manuscript aside. Ask yourself the kind of questions a book reviewer or book club might ask. Did this book grab your attention? Was it paced well? Were the characters believable? Did they engage your emotions?

If you, as the pretend reader, answered No to any of these questions, it’s time to go back and revise or rewrite.

Share your manuscript with a "real" reader

Get a friend or acquaintance who you know reads your genre to look at your manuscript, asking themselves the same questions as above. Ask them to write down their responses. You may even want to give them a template sheet to fill out their responses to the printed questions.

There’s no question about it: it’s harder to write for an audience than for yourself. If you’re happy writing for just yourself, great! But if you, like me, have gotten sick of that particular cycle, try some of these tips and write your story with a reader in mind. Your future reader will thank you for sharing your story with them.

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