Have I said enough? I aimed to be brief…

This week, while checking back through an old diary, I found a quote I’d like to share. It comes from the Scottish poet, Liz Lochhead, and seems as valuable and applicable to prose as poetry.

A poet has to trust the readers’ intuition and intelligence…

Woman Reading a Novel, 1888 painting by Vincent van Gogh.

Trusting the reader is both important and difficult. It’s not just about avoiding over-explaining things, it’s also about ensuring we say enough to make our meaning clear. While I like to think that I’m able to make that judgement, I’m aware that, especially when I’m writing up to a deadline, I have blind spots.

There are some tried and tested solutions to this problem. One, is the thing so many writers find tricky, to put your first draft away for several weeks as soon as you think it’s finished. If you go on to write on other topics, then that theory says that by the time you return to your first piece you’ll view it through fresh eyes.

If time is shorter, and in my experience it so often is, you might try reading it aloud to yourself. Alternatively, you can give your writing to someone you trust and let them tell you what they think… what they really think. Because, the other aspect of this quote that interests me is that when she says, trust the reader’s intuition and intelligence… Liz Lochhead seems to echo a suggestion I picked up from Stephen King’s autobiography, On Writing.

In it, he talks about having a group of ideal readers who check the first drafts of his manuscripts. These people represent the readers he expects to buy his novels. He suggests that he writes with an idea not just about his story, but about the style of telling that will suit the audience he’s aiming for.

Print by Alberto Manrique

Whether we’re aware of this or not, I think we all write with a reader in mind. It may be that we can’t visualize that audience, but we surely know something about the intuition and intelligence we expect from them. I suspect they’re mostly people like us, or they’re the ‘beings’ we’d like to be.

Finding readers who understand who you are, and what you aspire to, can be tricky. l’m lucky in having two trusted readers. They’re both people I know well, and who know me well.

I don’t say I write for them, my writing is something completely selfish. But when I’ve finished, and I’m checking the draft, I do find myself thinking about how Ray or Ruth will perceive my words.

And later, if either says, ‘I don’t get why/what/how...’ then no matter how much I might want to protest, I know that I’ve got to think about making changes to my writing.

Woman Reading a Novel, painting by Vincent van Gogh.

41 thoughts on “Have I said enough? I aimed to be brief…

  1. How true! You may think that everything you’ve written is completely logical and clear but another pair of eyes can pick out the discrepancies, the time slips, the unforced and unintentional errors…. and that’s before they get started on the typos!
    And yes, reading aloud your work is really helpful. I got into the habit when I was writing radio scripts which of course, the audience will hear, and apart from all the errors I found, I was able to pick out and change clumsy or difficult sentences which the actor would have had trouble getting his tongue (and head!) around.

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  2. This is a wonderful post Cath in so many ways. The how much is too much, or too little principle, plus every reader is different. I also think on a first draft with no idea of how you are going to reach a decent word count, you can pad and go down blind alleyways and that is another aspect of the how much biz to put in. Personally as a reader I struggle with prose that tells way too much when it comes to description. I get lost in the sludge and I think, is it necessary to describe something we all know, one line was all that was needed here. Of course you know that the writers of previous centuries did because there were things people hadn’t seen whereas we all live in a visual age. One of my editors also said for the US market you need to hammer the point home three times for the average US reader to take it in when it comes to intuition and intelligence. And she was a Texan. Then as you say there’s deadlines. I reckon you’ve fair covered all the bases here though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Shey. I really appreciate having my thoughts confirmed by someone who has published experience of the writing process.
      As for description, you may have just given me a subject for another post. I share your feelings about minimalism. The writing has to be really special to justify anything more than a word or two.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh good I was reading something the other day and I just thought can we can cut through all this what a corridor looks like stuff and get to the story here. SO I am sure this will be an informative post. Thank you too. I am more than happy to confirm your thoughts. Also I think sometimes it is good to leave the odd ‘ fuzzy’ bit where it can be left that fraction open to a reader’s interpretation often because a character may not be fully self aware regarding themselves and a situation they’re in and they don’t know what’s round the corner or the full implications of what they’re doing. But if it’s hammered out then it is in tablets of stone.

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        • The less detail provided by the author, the more we fill in for ourselves. As you say, a corridor is a corridor, is a corridor, unless there’s a specific feature of it that is important to the plot, why bother, because I bet my version of it would be different to yours, no matter how much detail that writer provided.

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          • Exactly. I mean we all know hat a corridor is…right?? And yep you might see it blue, I might see it green…Unless one of these colours is vital to the plot, can we get out of that corridor, please. x

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  3. My own worst critic looks over my shoulder while I’m writing, so when my two readers suggest the clarification of a sentence or paragraph it’s often a confirmation of my own doubt . What cheers immensely is when I get affirmative feedback that indicates a cognitive and emotional resonance.

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    • Your critic too? I’ve bins full of discarded paragraphs thanks to her. But, it is, as you say, rewarded when the feedback is positive. Such a good feeling when someone confirms that the writing has worked.

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  4. I think the reading aloud is vital… but S.K.’s ‘ideal reader’ defeats me! I realise (after many years) I have absolutely no idea who would want to read what I write…. but I know ’em when I find ’em (I think)….

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  5. I totally agree with you. I have two people who read my work and will question what I’ve written. It’s so important to have a fresh eye on your work and to take notice of feedback. I always read my dialogue out loud (no I’m not having a conversation with myself)!

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  6. I agree with all the comments above. I think I know who my readers will be but there can be surprises especially if you cross genres. Before I published The Weave I bullied a couple of people who were not at all fans of any sort of fantasy to get feedback. Their feedback was so positive; they didn’t mind the (admittedly mild) fantasy but they really got into the historical parts and it was that aspect that sold the book to them. It does complicate things a tad though when deciding who the target readership really is!

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    • Your friends sound as if they were perfect ‘ideal’ readers, not put off by something because it didn’t exactly fit their preferred genre. When I think about Stephen King’s output, he’s not exactly a neat genre fit, crossing over horror, suspense, fantasy, mystery and mystical subjects, so his ‘ideal’ must be pretty flexible.

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    • I think ‘trust’ is the hardest part of the deal for a writer. However, having just finished your novel, ‘Survival of the Fittest’, I would say you’ve got the balance just right.

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  7. So very true! I know I’m happy if anyone reads my stuff, but there’s no denying that when we write, we have a certain kind of reader in mind. Why else do we define the genres of our stories? WE know what we’re writing. Those genre labels are for readers.

    And it’s one of my pet peeves when a movie has actors explain EVERYthing: emotions, reasons, etc, stuff that would be much more effective if merely SHOWN. We shouldn’t have to treat the readers like they’re idiots, and yet Diana Wynne Jones got grief for that very thing when writing for adults, being told by editors she had to explain everything for adult readers while kid readers are more than ready to run with anything.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I wonder how far book tastes are dictated by a few editors? Poor Diana Wynne Jones, it’s one thing to have advice about improving your story, but this sounds very far from that.

      As for films that pause regularly for exposition dumps… we get very irritated by it.
      All I’ll add, is that do that more than once, and we’ve generally switched to something else.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I am fortunate to have three or four excellent readers/writers who are not afraid to critique. They have helped me immensely. I write, for the most part, for kids, so I run some of my writing by them when I have an opportunity. They are brutally honest. They say things like, “That part you just read, it was boring.” or “What did that mean?” It helps!

    Liked by 2 people

    • It must be lovely to try your stories out on the audience before finishing the final draft. Brutal honesty can be hard to hear, but is certainly useful, and is no doubt accompanied by plenty of applause, too.

      The success of your Amanda series of books is well worth taking note of. Good luck with the latest, Amanda in Holland: Missing in Action.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi. I reread my essays any number of times over a multi-day period. I always find loads of things that need to be addressed. Only then do I pass the pieces to my wife, who is my editor. I’d be afraid to hit the WordPress publish button before she looked things over.

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  10. Another erudite and insightful post Cath. Your words particularly chimed because I’ve just
    read Elizabeth Kostova’s ‘The Historian.’ I say read it, but I never made it to the end. It’s not that it was a badly written or uninteresting book. It just continuously said too much. This was a pity because the premise, plot and characters were engaging. For me though, she spent too many words describing ‘the corridor,’ as one of your previous responders put it. From the perspective of your blog, I don’t think Ms Kostova trusted me at all.

    It’s a bit like seeing a neon sign to a peaceful, sun-dappled glade only to find you have to cross a bog to reach it. Half way over when your thighs are aching and your feet are drenched, the urge disappears. And then you discover there’s another route which, without the signpost, you could have discovered for yourself.

    Am I doing it now? Could I have made that point in half the words? Probably. I’ll let myself off because it’s my first draft and I’ve yet to put it away in a drawer, something which, as you point out, is difficult to do. Especially for an impatient, infrequent writer who excels at procrastination. I’d worry that I may never see it again. I do like the technique of reading out loud. Sometimes I record it and play it back to myself. It’s useful for highlighting the dull, slow parts and between the cringes, there can even be the odd proud moment.

    Sticking to the less is more rule is a huge challenge and it’s even harder to ‘murder your darlings’ when they’ve crept through the brevity filter. It’s tough for a writer to accept that not every single word is welcomed by their readers.

    Thankfully, I also have a trusted ideal reader in a wonderfully reciprocal arrangement. We’ve been friends for a long time and I totally trust her to move me swiftly along that bluey green, partially lit, malodorous and strangely sinister corridor. Thanks Cath.

    For now though, I’m off to check my drawers…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Definitely not a corridor, Ruth, a lovely ramble across an interesting landscape, full of interesting observation points – loved your country-walk metaphor. I think your internal-editor is far too efficient to allow you to write ‘wellie-sucking’ areas of prose.

      I know there will be some gems in that writing-drawer – can’t wait to read some more…

      Thanks for the tip about Elizabeth Kostova, whose novel has a title that might have been designed to tempt me.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Such an interesting post. Firstly, it flags up that in certain ways I still don’t think of myself as a writer. I thought I’d got passed making the distinction between aiming for a book/short story and writing because – well, because you have to! Seems that I still have some work to do in that respect. But that aside, you have given me plenty to think about, Cath. Thank you 😊

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    • Thank you Sandra. I do think ‘owning’ the label ‘writer’ is one of the trickiest things we do, who put our words out in the public sphere. After all, here we are, tapping out words to ‘publish’ on the www. I think of you as a writer, Sandra.

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