Writing Is A Bad Habit: Don’t Talk Down To Anyone! a.k.a. Respecting the Reader

You might notice, my literary foodies, that so much of what we do as authors revolves around the reader.  I don’t think I need to outright state why that is.  Well, no, I believe I should, because I’d hate to start a discussion without being clear about the most critical core concept of said discussion.  We cater to the reader because the key, core, primary purpose of any work of fiction is to entertain the reader.

Yes, there are often many other purposes, meanings, and deeper concepts behind our craft, but it doesn’t change this primary purpose.  No matter what we wish to teach, what themes we explore, or what other agendas we may be pursuing, the baseline criteria of success remains entertainment.  So, to that end, we strive to keep the readers happy and engaged with our works.  One key element of this eternal quest that is sometimes left by the wayside is the concept of ‘respecting the reader’.

While I want to avoid a recursive definition, in the end, respecting the reader means just what it says.  We, as authors, must always remember that our readers are independent minds and are often as smart, possibly smarter, than ourselves.  We must treat the reader as a guest in our fictional worlds, not as an intruder and not as a child.

In the simplest examples I can think of, we can look at your typical fantasy world.  In such a construct of imagination, we may feel that we have to minutely explain every new concept that exists.  Part of this feeling is justified and necessary, hence the need for smart exposition.  At the same time, though, we must have faith in and respect the imaginations of our readers.  Not every minute aspect and detail must be told to them.  They’re smart, they can fill in blanks, and they can apply their real-world experiences to smooth over gaps.  Don’t treat your reader as a fool and you will earn their respect.

This also plays along with reader engagement as well.  Treating them as idiots and wasting time with needless minutae bores them, while making them think and use their imaginations engages them and stimulates them on a mental level deeper than simple info-dumps.  This is a vital a concept to more down-to-earth genres like mysteries and contemporary dramas as it is to the far-flung realms of fantasy and sci-fi.

This also applies to the flip-side of such scenarios.  Expecting the readers to be able to figure out things they simply could not, such as presenting a mystery whose clues are never revealed, is equally insulting.  It is akin to inviting a guest into your home for a party, then brushing them off after confining them to a small corner room.  They can hear the party-goers enjoying themselves in the other room, but are kept out of the fun.

This only scratches the surface of reader respect.  There are many ways to earn their respect and each carries with it the opposite way to throw that respect away.  Judging your level of reader respect may be very hard to do on your own, being so close to your own work, so this is one of the many areas where having a wide range of beta readers can help you with.

At the end of the day, remember, like with all other forms of respect, a good rule of thumb is to treat your readers in a way you would expect to be treated reading your favorite author.  Between that, common sense, and following the guidance of your beta readers, you can be an author who welcomes the rest of the world to share their vision!

Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

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4 comments

  1. This post makes me wonder: is it possible for an author to worry *too* much about respecting their readers? e.g. worrying so much that they end up creating mundane, voiceless writing in an attempt to not offend anyone.

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