1. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    There is no such thing as “The Reader”

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by minstrel, Jul 7, 2016.

    Things I’ve seen often (stupidly often) on this forum, and in books on writing, are statements like: “The reader wants a hook on the first page”; “The reader wants a simple vocabulary because he won’t bother looking things up in a dictionary”; “The reader hates long sentences”; “The reader hates prologues” and so on.

    Who is this Reader?

    I contend that the Reader doesn’t exist. Sure, there are some readers out there who match the template I’ve suggested, but there are a great many readers who do not (myself, for example). There’s a huge variety of readers out there, and you can’t just assume they’re all the same and that they all want the same things. I happen to like slow beginnings. I like a variety of sentences – long, short, complex, simple. I like a variety of approaches to storytelling. Three-act structure means nothing to me. Life doesn’t organize itself that way; why should fiction?

    This Reader drives me crazy. He doesn’t exist, and yet he seems to rule over us. I reject him. I just hope my work finds the reader who’s looking for it – that’s MY reader.
     
  2. FireWater
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    FireWater Active Member

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    I agree with much of this, in the sense that everyone has different tastes and preferences, and I can relate to the feeling of how irritating it is when people make generalizations that I don't fit into at all. From that standpoint, I can see the wisdom in not changing your own preference because someone else is so ego-focused that they think their own preference is "The Reader" i.e. everyone.

    But, I can also see how it could be problematic to be so entrenched in this style of thinking, that you dismiss any constructive criticism as being not valid due to "The Reader."

    I think there needs to be a balance of both. Being able to objectively consider other ideas and preferences for the sake of bettering your work, but also, in the end, staying true to yourself.
     
  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I've always taken "the reader" to mean "intended audience."
     
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  4. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Same.

    I didn't think anybody would take it quite so literally!
     
  5. Aaron Smith
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    Aaron Smith Contributing Member Contributor

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    It is a construct people use to give their own opinions objective merit. If someone says "the reader wants..." what they are actually saying is "I believe writing should be done this way..."

    Obviously there is the exception of published authors that can draw conclusions about what The Reader [their readers] wants from reviews and whatnot, but it still can't be applied to all aspects of the writing experience.

    And to those above who say The Reader is the intended audience. Correct. But it is not the writer who decides who reads their books. It is the reader. :bigwink:
     
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  6. Wayjor Frippery
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    Wayjor Frippery Contributing Member

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    In terms of commercial fiction, the reader is an idealized person who represents the lowest common denominator between all the people who buy that kind of book. Harsh but true. Think of Hollywood and their ideas about the viewer – same shit, different medium, but financially hard to argue with.

    Who needs art when you're making dollars? [irony]


    ETA:
    Although the publishing company's marketing department will have a pretty good go at helping the reader decide...
     
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  7. Sifunkle
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    Sifunkle Dis Member

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    'The Reader' is a generalisation, either of a work's target audience or (if that's not clear/known) of the overall reading population. It's never intended to represent every single reader out there because, as you say, every person is an individual who breaks the mould in some way. Despite popular belief, generalisations are not bad things, unless they're not recognised as such. (On that note, if the 'lowest common denominator' doesn't appeal to you, then it's not a common denominator...)

    Without consideration of general trends, this forum would be almost entirely useless. Should I critique someone's horror story with 'The lack of paisley umbrellas disappointed me. I'd have loved a nice magenta one.'? If you're writing purely for one person (e.g. yourself), then you only have one set of preferences to consider. Once you have multiple sets of preferences it's often most efficient to play to the common ones.

    Most of us want our work to reach the widest section of our intended demographic as possible. Considering the Reader allows us to tailor its delivery to them (both so they get it in the first place, and so they enjoy it once they have it). Ignoring the Reader is like throwing confetti into a tornado.

    Exactly: if you don't consider the Reader, all you can do is hope. There probably is someone out there who'd love your story, but traditional publishers won't be interested in something without wide appeal, and if you're self-publishing you can't effectively deliver it to them if you don't know who they are. Some individuals actively seek out what they're interested in, but I think most require some level of marketing or the momentum of mass appeal before they'll read anything.

    Because fiction isn't like life. If it were, no-one would read; they'd just live.

    Sometimes, although one can't 'give' objective merit: it either has it or it doesn't, and it's up to you to judge that. I'd say more often people give their honest understanding (not necessarily accurate) of the consensus. Make note of the expertise behind a comment (if known), but 'experts' can be just as full of it as idiots.

    It's everyone involved in the process (plus chance) that determines whether a book is read. The writer maximises their contribution by considering who is likely to sit at the end of that line and what their preferences are likely to be. To ignore that is IMO literary nihilism.

    Understanding generalisations doesn't mean you have to follow them. If you're aware of an expectation, you might create something even greater by defying it. It's a calculated risk.

    A lot of this disquiet seems to stem from an inability to identify generalisations and opinions (or at least to appreciate them for what they are). There are several of each in this post.
     
  8. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I think of "the reader" as a hypothetical construct, someone whose interest I want to hold, someone whom I want to hear what I have to say. "The reader" is not monolithic.

    A lot of the generalizations offered in the name of "the reader" seem to be based on perceptions of what sells in the marketplace, but I suspect they are crafted with the same notions that lead to the false dichotomy of "commercial success v. literary merit".

    The generalizations I DO try to keep in mind are those that agents mention when they describe what they are looking for and what they find as turnoffs. Agents, like readers, are not monolithic but they do tend to follow a certain herd instinct. One can (and arguably should) violate some of their guidelines, but it's important to remember (if you are seeking to be traditionally published) that each exception narrows your odds of finding the right agent in an already hugely competitive field.
     
  9. deadrats
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    deadrats Active Member

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    There are reasons people say some of those things, but I've never heard you need to use simple words or that you should always use short sentences. I don't think those are true at all, and I've been writing along time. Think about the what you read. Because those things are not in the books I read. I don't want to read children's books where those rules might apply. So, I would ignore those two pieces of advice.

    When it comes to a great beginning or a hook, I do think you need this on some level. There is so much competition when it comes to landing a publisher or agent and them attracting readers. If you can't get and hold someone's attention quickly, you will lose readers. And the gatekeepers of publishing are very aware of this so you should be too. Slow beginnings can work, but there needs to be something compelling that holds the readers interest. In fact, just about anything can work (all these things you think of as rules and breaking them) if it's compelling and done well. However, when it comes to beginnings, this is your big chance to sell your story. I used to read slush, and I most of the time opinions are formed quite quickly. Slush piles can be quite large. And I usually knew very quickly if a story was worth forwarding to an editor. Personally, I can dig a quiet story. I don't mind a slower pace. But I still want to feel drawn in.

    Don't drive yourself crazy thinking about what readers want or like. You are a reader and you know what you like. More so, if you like a less-than-action-packed beginning, think about why you like it. How did the author keep your attention in those opening pages? Ultimately, we want to have readers. We want are work to resonate with others. Without readers, what we do would be kind of pointless.
     
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  10. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Sometimes "the reader" is used when really it should be "I" - "I don't like long sentences." It's a way of lending authority to your own opinion/tastes and can muddle up good critique.
     
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  11. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Actually I write to fulfill my own writing interests rather than some unknown reader as that feels a bit like a lost cause ( for me ) when I never think in terms of genre.

    Not that I don't have sympathy for the reader I do, but it's more a reflection of my own preferences. For instance I love the occasional big paragraph but I don't like a whole crop of them. Smaller and more compact is more my style. There have been books ( a lot of literary books ) that I've put down just because I can't face that wall of prose. Anything that can break up the dense look of a page, I'm all for. I'm also more for sentence variety than don't do this or that. And here's a dilly - I tend to drop pronouns which can be a real no-no for readers especially the ones who don't read deep third povs. Mainly I like to experiment so I'm more interested in capturing a reader who is ready for that not a reader who is expecting the smoothness of a ghost read.
     
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  12. Carthonn
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    Carthonn Active Member

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    I'm a reader and I want to be entertained. Is that a crime?
     
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  13. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    Nope. However, you really should let those women out of your basement. ;)
     
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  14. Carthonn
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    Carthonn Active Member

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    Why? It's carpeted, there's cable and their water dish is replenished twice a day. It's not bad.
     
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  15. HelloImRex
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    HelloImRex Contributing Member

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    Well, if "the reader" doesn't exist that means you aren't selling very much.

    Sorry, I always think of terrible replies I find funny before considering topics seriously. I don't actually mean that. This all depends on what thing "the reader" doesn't like. Complex things like structure and vocabulary can't be simplified to one audience. People vary on what they like. However, if every character in your book has the name of Greg then it might be okay to say that "the reader" would follow along better with a wider selection of names. But yeah, overall people are very pessimistic on what they think will work unless it's their own endeavour in which case there is a fine line between optimism and stubbornness.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that there is a difference between caring about your audience enough to tell them what they want and not caring about your audience. A lot of great books are cases of the former while something like the new ghost busters movie is a case of the latter.
     
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2016
  16. LinnyV
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    LinnyV Contributing Member

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    I'm pretty sure this mythical reader might not be a he either... :p Unless you are talking about yourself and don't know it.

    I can't help feel you're getting over-worked over something that isn't meant to be literal as some one has already mentioned. The "reader" is a guide for me and even then I'm a firm believer that you write for yourself first. Since I am my own intended audience, the reader does exist for me. It's me and so would make her a she.

    Why am I even answering this thread? *throws hand up in disgust*
     
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  17. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I'm totally with @minstrel on this. Readers are as diverse as any other group of people. The only thing they have in common is that they can—and do—read. To say 'they' always want a particular thing, or always hate a particular thing just doesn't make sense when you look at the plethora of books out there.

    There will be trends that are popular at any given time, and if you're writing to please the largest number of people, it probably makes sense to churn out what the majority seems to like best at the moment. But that doesn't mean minority taste isn't there, or that it's wrong. And no fad lasts forever.
     
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  18. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    Well, this turns out to be an interesting subject of discussion. I'm quite liking the discussion here. Some good points on both sides.
     

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