Trusting Your Reader: The Writer and the Reader, Part I

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For the next couple of weeks I’d like to write about the relationship between the writer and his or her readers.  This is a matter that came up during one of our panels at ConCarolinas, and I’ll address the particular aspect of the issue that we discussed in that panel next week.  But this week, I’d like to write about something that my editor and I have talked about quite a bit over the years:  Trusting our readers.

What does that even mean?  Trusting our readers . . . to what?  To not steal our books from the stores?  To not read them while taking care to keep the spine uncracked, so that the book can be returned to the bookstore for a refund?  To not trash our books in Amazon reviews just for the fun of it?

No, this is actually a writing issue.  Trusting our readers, is, in some ways, similar to the familiar saying “Show don’t tell,” and it is particularly important for beginning writers.  Certainly it was for me when I was starting out.  Basically it means not giving your readers too much information, or, put another way, giving them enough information to understand what’s happening, but not so much that you preempt their sense of discovery.  My editor scrawled “Trust your reader!” again and again when reading through my first couple of manuscripts, because I tended to explain too much.  I was writing what I thought were complicated story lines and describing the motivations of complex characters.  I wanted to be certain that my readers knew where I was going with each twist and turn of my plot, and so I left markers to make sure they “got it.”

My editor’s response was to say, as gently as he could, that while my plot was clever and my characters multidimensional, what I had written was not nuclear physics.  The average reader would understand where I was taking him or her.  More to the point, by explaining too much, by using those markers, I was denying my readers one of the great joys of reading:  That feeling of epiphany that comes when we figure things out along with the characters we’re following. In what specific ways did my failure to trust my readers manifest itself?  Well, for one thing, I described tone of voice too often.  “She said, her tone suddenly urgent . . .”  “He explained, obviously trying to sound comforting . . .”  “She said with compassion. . .”  All of those are dialogue attributions lifted directly from my first novel in its published form — these are the ones that slipped by my editor, or that he chose to ignore because some of my other passages were so egregious they needed more work.  None of them needed to be more than “She said…”  “He said…” “She said…”  The actual dialogue and the context were enough to convey the emotions and thoughts behind what was said.  I should have trusted my readers to get the rest.  But I was young and new to the craft and I felt that I needed to explain it all.

Another example, also from that first novel:  In discussing my main character’s struggle to learn to ride a horse, I describe how he overcomes the initial aches and pains of a long journey on horseback.  

As they remounted and rode on, he also realized that his horsemanship had improved.  He was being jolted less; he felt himself moving more in concert with the animal beneath him; and he sensed that his horse now labored less than it had, no doubt in response to his growing comfort and confidence.

Here’s how I’d write that passage today:

As they remounted and rode on, he also realized that his horsemanship had improved.  He was being jolted less; he felt himself moving in concert with his animal; and he sensed that his horse now labored less than it had.

The stuff I cut was extraneous.  Of course the horse is laboring less because he’s a better rider.  My readers get that; they don’t need to have it explained.  Trust the reader!  Here’s a little trick I had to learn early on:  When I find myself introducing or qualifying a passage with words like “No doubt” and “Obviously,” chances are the passage isn’t necessary.  

As you can see, this really is a “Show don’t tell” issue.  By trusting the reader we rely less on explication, we allow our characters and dialogue and action to tell the tale.  Our storytelling becomes leaner, more direct.  Because while the phrase we use is “Trust the reader,” what we’re really saying is “Trust yourself — trust your character development, your storytelling, your worldbuilding, your descriptions, your dialogue.”  These days, when I find myself explaining too much my own internal editor kicks in and tells me that this is a symptom of a deeper problem.  If I’m explaining too much it probably means that the plot lines aren’t clear enough in my own mind, or that I’m making my characters do things that are . . . well . . . out of character.  In other words, it probably means that I’ve temporarily lost faith in the way I’m telling my story.

So how do we avoid these “Trust” issues?  Well, to begin with I do my best to know as much about my characters, my world, and my plot as I can before I start writing.  Now some of you may say, “Hey, I’m a seat of the pants writer, and it almost sounds like you’re telling me to outline.”  Not at all.  Pantsers can write a book without an outline but still know the story they’re telling.  They can be familiar with all the background, the world they’ve built, the characters they’ve created, and they can know where a story is headed.  Knowing all of that, having a clear vision of your project, can give you the confidence to trust your writing, even if you haven’t outlined your plot points.  I also try to keep my prose directed and strong.  When I slip into passive writing or start using vague filler words — “a bit”  “somewhat” “obviously” etc. — that is usually a sign that I’ve lost my way and need to rethink where the story is going.  Finally, I look for redundant passages.  If I’m saying things more than once in order to drive home a point it probably means that something is wrong with what I’m writing.

So trust yourself, trust your reader.  Have enough faith in your craft to believe that the story you’re telling is clear enough and compelling enough that your readers are paying attention.  You’ll wind up with a better book.  In the end, trusting your reader is self-fulfilling and reciprocal.  If you write a book that’s lean and clear you’ll have justified the trust your reader placed in you when she took it off the bookstore shelf and spend her hard-earned cash to read it.

David B. Coe
http://MagicalWords.net
http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
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11 comments to Trusting Your Reader: The Writer and the Reader, Part I

  • David, I needed that. I’m working on an old rusty (as opposed to a new shiny) that has been under the metaphorical bed for 20 years, and that is exactly what I am seeing. Lack of trust in my reader. Now I know *why* I’ve been hacking passages down like a bushhog.
    I never heard the phrse *Trust your Reader,* but it makes perfect sense.

  • Thanks, Faith. Good luck with the Old Rusty. Put another way, Trusting Your Reader is a TMI issue — Too much information. Not the way we sometimes mean it, but apropos just the same.

  • Good post. I linked it to my website if you don’t mind.

  • Thanks for linking to us, Mark, and thanks as well for the comment on my LJ blog about this post. For those of you who don’t know Mark, he is a talented author and a terrific person. His web site is definitely worth checking out: http://kennethmarkhoover.com/

  • Absolutely, David! My favorite writer is brilliant at letting me ferret out all the hidden details, and as a result, the end of each book is always immensely satisfying. 😀

  • Just wanted to elaborate. This was probably the single hardest lesson I had to learn in my growth as a writer. It’s difficult to believe it can be true because it’s not intuitive. When you’re starting out in this business you figure you gotta make things obvious and apparent for the reader. So in my case that meant a lot of over-writing.

    I look at really old stuff I did twenty years ago that’s 10K words and now I realize I could write the same story at 5k or 6k. It’s hard to believe, but when you finally buckle down and “trust the reader” the writing improves immeasurably. Anyway, it did for me.

  • Misty, I’m not sure who the author in question is (though I think I have it narrowed to a couple of names, and both of them do what you’re describing wonderfully.

    As for Mark’s comment, I’ll admit that when he posted these words at my LJ blog I asked him to re-post them here. As I say, Mark is an accomplished writer, and his comments are spot on. It is counterintuitive — you want readers to understand. The last thing you want is for your work to seem too obscure, too difficult to follow. But over-writing is just that. Trust yourself; trust the reader — it’s a good mantra. Thanks very much, Mark.

  • I’ll have to go over some of my stuff to see if I have this problem. My knee-jerk reaction is to say I don’t, having sussed it out over the years, but I also didn’t think I used too much passive voice in a short story when it got turned down for an anthology a few years ago…until it was brought to my attention. 😉

    Seeing as I’m burning through writing a novella length story right now this has given me one more thing to keep an eye out for.

    I’ve always tried to live by the show-don’t-tell motto in my writing and also tend to play my plot close to the chest because I like those “AHA!” moments you find in a book plot at times.

    One of my issues, and I know it’s an issue, is that I tend to get a little wordy when writing so when I go back to do edits I tend to have to start cutting and rewording to make it all more concise. Dunno, for some reason I just like wordy prose, I guess. 😉

  • Thanks as always for the comment, Daniel. There are definitely things that I do when I’m writing that I’m not entirely aware of until I go back over the manuscript for revisions. To this day I still have “Trust” issues, which is not to say that you will, too, but editing ourselves as we go is not an easy thing to do. It sounds though as if you do a nice job of editing yourself in revisions, and that’s a terrific skill to have.

  • for folks learning to edit, those vague words are one of the easier things to focus on to tighten up writing. I slip into them often. However and though are faves of mine. If the word or words serve no purpose, why have them? Easier said than done of course, but I’m finding as I start to edit my fantasy, things are standing out (it’s been months since I really looked at it). Time is also a good editor. One of the least appreciated by writers I think. I’m editing this round with one goal: cut 30 words per page. I want to get from 110k down to 100k. I know this story has some lazy writing in it. It needs tightening, so there it is. Only thirty words. Sounds easy. Some pages it is, and others it’s hard. Worth it though. As for trusting the reader, I really try hard these days to believe the reader is smart, and is not only able to figure things out, but really wants to as well. I think readers like a bit of that ‘filling it in’ effect. Not everything needs description.

  • Good points, Jim. Thanks for the comment. I think the laziness thing is the toughest for me. And cutting 30 words per page! Wow! That is a lot and hard work. Good luck with it.