Pity the reader. –Kurt Vonnegut
There may be as many reasons to write as there are writers, but most if not all can be lumped into three categories:
- self-expression and creative fulfillment
- sharing information, entertainment, and/or inspiration
- calling readers to action (e.g. political, spiritual, commercial)
Of the three, only the first reason allows for the possibility of not taking readers into consideration—and then only if the writer plans to leave the writing on a shelf.
Otherwise, we write to connect. We have something to say and want others to hear it.
It’s surprising then how easy it is, putting words to paper, to forget the reader. It’s alarmingly common, for example, to read political commentary that assumes its readers already agree with its author. Otherwise, it wouldn’t insult people who don’t—the very people whose minds the author is trying to change.
Another kind of disregard for readers is self-indulgence. Our own voice seduces us; it warps a piece of writing into a showcase of our intelligence, wit, expertise, or sophistication. Nobody wants to read that. Except the writer—until she finally acknowledges these motivations and winces at how transparent the preening must have been all along to everyone else. Guilty.
Sometimes we get hung up on our vision for a piece of writing. I understand the integrity of creative expression, and writing (particularly poetry and experimental fiction) is art. But if we want that vision to land we must follow Vonnegut's advice.
A writer I met recently was frustrated with her book editor. The editor suggested adding background and context. Telling me this story, the writer made a face. “That wasn’t what my focus was,” she said. She didn’t want to emphasize that.
This line struck me, because I both recognized the sentiment behind it—what writer hasn’t felt thwarted and misunderstood when sharing her work?—and agreed with the editor.
The writer seemed to forget her purpose for writing, which was to explain an important problem so her readers would do something about it. Frankly, it didn’t matter if she didn’t want to emphasize that. Assuming readers needed it for understanding, she had to include it.
I’m no expert in her topic and don’t know her readership, so I can’t make the call, but the editor’s suggestion sounded solid. If the writer had said, “My readers already know that,” or “Readers don’t need to know that,” okay. But her reluctance wasn’t reader related.
So how do we pity the reader? One way is to put ourselves in his shoes and ask, “If I didn’t know this author, what would I get out of reading this?
Is the writing entertaining? Insightful? Informative? Inspiring? Does it shed some light on the human condition?
Pitying the reader is a mindset. It may be one you set aside while writing the first draft—at that point, it’s best to let it all fly—but it is one you must adopt when revising and editing.