What You Owe the Reader

By Malin James


Let me just say right up front that you will never, ever, (like, never, ever, ever) please every single person who reads your work. I know this sounds obvious, but it took me ages to internalize that and until I did my writing was kind of generic and voiceless, (and by “kind of” I mean “completely”). I was too busy wrestling with the little editor in my head to develop my own style.


That little editor is a jerk, by the way. Not only does it con you into editing yourself right out of your work, but it makes a tiny part of you think that maybe, just maybe, if you do this, or that or the other thing, your writing will be met with universal approval, which is about as likely as my getting hired by NASA. All you have to do is scan through Amazon reviews to know that one person’s five star is another person’s one star. That’s just the way it is. So, yes. You can’t please every reader all the time…but that doesn’t mean you don’t owe them.


What do I mean “owe”? Well, writing rarely exists in a vacuum. Unless you’re writing purely for yourself, (which is totally valid), anyone who reads your work forms the other half of a partnership—you write a thing and they take the time to read it. Whether or not they like it is out of your control, but that’s okay because that’s not what you owe them. What you owe them is writing worth the time they took to read it.


Personally, I think this is kind of terrifying. I mean, there’s no reliable way to gauge the “worthiness” of a piece—all you can do is try your best, right? Plus, attention spans are short. Even great posts lose people, and there’s nothing you can do about short attention spans. Here’s something you can do though—you can make space for the reader in your work. You can give the reader room to engage your writing on their terms.


The hard truth is that most people, writers and readers alike, tend to focus on themselves, which is pretty normal. We all want to be relevant. That’s modern life. The key to making your writing resonate is to allow it to be relevant to someone other than yourself.


So, how do you do that? How do you make room for people you’ve probably never met in a post about your first, (or fifth, of fiftieth), threesome? Well, you ask yourself questions and keep the answers in mind while you write your story / essay / post / poem / rant / limerick / etc.


What are you trying to say? Why do you want people to read it? Is it to turn them on? To get validation? To give support? To encourage? To educate? To vent? What affect do you want to have? Why is it relevant (to you or in the grander scheme of things)? Why are you bothering to write it right now?


The answer to those questions can be anything from “I want to make my Twitter crush need a wank” to “I want to show people why pegging is awesome”. The important thing is that the answers are specific enough to inform the way you write even though they probably won’t show up explicitly in the text. It’s a way to ensure that you write with the reader in mind, and that you do so with intention.


Intention is a critically underused tool in writing. If you don’t write with intention, you run the risk of not saying what you wanted to say. Worse, you run the risk of not saying anything at all. Intention is the difference between a post about why submission is critical to your happiness, and a diary entry about your date Saturday night.


I know all of this can get overwhelming. It’s basically the mental equivalent of rubbing your tummy and patting your head—mindlessly easy once you know how to do it, but freaking frustrating until then. Here are some basic questions I tend to keep in mind:


  1. What do you want the reader to feel?
  2. What do you want the reader to think?
  3. What specific, concrete effect do you want to have?
  4. How can I do that with this story or post?

And my favorite:

  1. Where is the thrust (ha) of the piece? In other words, where does the focus lie?


If you’re arguing passionately about healthcare for sex workers, keep that imperative in mind—don’t wander onto your cousin who used to be a stripper unless he / she is directly relevant to your point.


This kind of questioning works just as well on fiction as it does on nonfiction. If you’re writing a piece of erotica that you really want to make people squirm in the middle of a client lunch, focus on the visceral, sexual urge you want to inspire. Why are they fucking? Or not fucking? What do your characters want but can’t have? What do they need? You get the idea.


Human beings are social animals. Beneath much of our behavior is the baseline desire to connect with other people, and writing is a powerful way to connect with lots of people all at once. Nailing a connection with your reader is one of the biggest highs a writer can get, and it’s pretty great for the reader too. It’s what makes the difference between the post you skim, and the one you make your best friend read oh-my-god-right-now. It’s a tricky line to walk, and it all depends on whether or not you’ve left enough space for the reader to slip into what you’ve written.


The relationship between the writer and the reader is a partnership and, as with most partnerships, you don’t get to control how the other person responds. You could ask yourself all the perfect questions, and the reader still might not like the piece. That’s okay. It doesn’t make you a bad writer—no one nails the connection every single time. If you did, your work would be loved all the world and I’d be working for NASA. The important thing to remember is that you don’t owe the reader a connection. You just owe them the chance to make one. Whether or not they take it is up to then.



Comment List

  • Cara Bristol 26 / 12 / 2016 Reply

    Great post. Well said. Love the line, “What you owe them is writing worth the time they took to read it.”

  • Rebecca 05 / 01 / 2017 Reply

    Lots of food for thought here especially about sticking to what you are trying to say and portray without wandering off

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