Trust Your Readers!

After all, they trusted you enough to buy your book.

Let’s back up a step or two. Just who are these people who took a chance on your ability to string nouns and verbs together in an entertaining fashion? Where did they come from? Surely, they can’t all be related to you in some way, can they? I think not.

Consider these woeful statistics excerpted from the Literacy Project Foundation (There’s plenty more to read on their website, and I urge you to spend some time there.):

  •  50% of adults cannot read a book written at the eighth grade level
  • 45 million are functionally illiterate and read below a fifth grade level
  • 44% of American adults do not read a book in a year

It’s safe to say that few, if any, of your readers come from these categories (and obviously, I’m not including books written for non- or beginning readers). For one thing, they bought your book, and unless you’ve loaded it up with cartoons and/or photos which appeal to juveniles, they bought it for the written content.  *↓* 

In other words, these folks are intelligent, reasoning human beings. They can draw logical conclusions, follow intricate plots and story lines, and formulate reasonable opinions about the characters, entertainment value, and other elements found in popular books. In short, they don’t need you to lead them by the nose.

  • Your job is NOT to tell them what to think.
  • Your job is NOT to tell them how to react.
  • Your job is NOT to interpret any emotional aspect of the work.

They can and will handle all of this on their own.

Many of us grew up hearing or reading the following line or a variation of it, usually (hopefully) as children: “And the moral of this story is… blah, blah, blah.” In other words, the author of this tale has absolutely no regard for the intellectual ability of his readers. They are so stupid, so insipidly moronic, they can’t even figure out a life lesson from something as stunningly obvious as “don’t be mean,” or “use good manners,” or “don’t poke a hornet’s nest unless you can run faster than at least one of the other idiots in your herd of troglodytes.”

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen this, or something similar, in the work of my students. The good news is, after I’ve roundly chastised them for the transgression, they rarely repeat it. (I hear I’ve been nominated for the “Knuckle-Rapper Award,” a coveted prize won almost exclusively by misanthropic nuns. Hope springs, eh?)

There are other manifestations. Most of them revolve around the narrative slipping into second person. Anytime one hears a narrator admonishing “you,” the locomotive is already off the tracks; the rails are separating and headed for different zip codes, and a tidy mountain of gravel is doubtless being plowed and piled by the runaway train. Please, don’t let it bury you.

Treat your readers as adults, unless you’re not specifically writing for adults. And even then, give them some credit for intellect. People are smarter than you think, despite what those steeped in politics–on both sides of the aisle–wish to tell us, ad nauseam.

As always, use good judgment.

–Josh

 *⊕* Okay, I realize I’ve loaded up my writing textbooks with illustrations that may not appeal to the most noble of intellectual ideals. They’re there for comic relief, and folks who are struggling to learn the craft of writing need all the comic relief they can get.

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Memoir, novel writing, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Trust Your Readers!

  1. Susanne says:

    I’m sure I’ve read some very good stories using the 2nd person POV which I can’t recall off the top of my head. Thinking maybe it was something by either Junot Diaz or Lorrie Moore. But they are very skilled writers and I suppose its not something a neophyte should try.

  2. joshlangston says:

    I couldn’t agree more. [smile] It’s far too easy to become preachy when the narrative is done in second person.

  3. Gerald W. Flinchum says:

    My favorite childhood line was Al Felstein in MAD, writing in small script in the legend of a map;
    “Once upon a time, there lived a giant…..”

  4. joshlangston says:

    A true genius. Feldstein made Mad magazine the wonderful, satirical, silly, insensitive, contagiously funny magazine that it was. Seems like it was required reading when I was a kid (a few hundred years ago).

  5. theryanlanz says:

    Hi Josh! Per your earlier permission, I scheduled this article to be featured on http://www.ryanlanz.com on July 4th. As usual, it has your credit/bio/link. Thanks!

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