Ideal Readers and Why They Are Necessary

Books black and white

First, I’d like to cheer on my fellow writers participating in this year’s A to Z Challenge — wish you guys a LOT OF FUN! I’ll be regularly checking out your blogs.

And now to the matter at hand.

On the wide planes of the internet, an ideal reader is defined all across the spectrum, from an abstract “construct designed to represent your audience,” to an actual person, “a trusted partner, adviser and the first person to read the writer‘s first draft of a book.” But the best definition I found so far was this: an ideal reader is someone “whose persona you try to adopt as you read and re-read your own work in the process of composition.”

Or how Stephen King puts it, “all novels are letters aimed at one person,” the ideal reader.

While an actual person reading your manuscript and offering competent advice is technically not an ideal reader, but an ideal critique partner, often times our best critique partners become our ideal readers. Their attitude and level of understanding of our work seeps into the artificial construct that is our ideal reader, the fantastic being who both loves our work and remains impartial to it. Something we cannot, however much we’d like to believe otherwise.

“I write for myself” is a fairly common mantra in the writer world, but in my opinion, that’s a mistake. If we write for ourselves, we tend to either be overly confident in our capacity as a writer (which keeps us from learning and exceeding our limits), or we become overly critical of our work (which can stall or regularly block us, and often results in compulsive editing and the “never finish anything” syndrome). Neither is desirable.

Writers who write for an ideal reader other than themselves tend to keep away from such extremes, and often their work is more “readable” and less eccentric (or nonexistent). So yes, I believe having a good ideal reader can save us a lot of headaches. Which isn’t to say writers shouldn’t write what interests them, what they love. When we write, we always implicitly write for ourselves first and foremost. It’s when we read our work, when we revise and edit it that we should change our glasses and avoid drooling over our masterpiece. Here’s where the ideal reader comes into play.

But how do we know we’ve built ourselves an ideal reader, and not just a cheerleader or bully?

The rule of thumb is to balance enthusiasm with skepticism. To find the middle ground between friend and critic, between supporter and demolisher by giving the ideal reader a keen eye and very high criteria of quality, but not allowing them to become condescending.

It’s hard to talk about abstract beings, so here’s a few basic criteria that make up my ideal reader:

  • he is a fan of my genre but not a die-hard, which means he’s still got an open mind about what science-fiction can or can’t do (and don’t ask me why, but he’s always a guy, a hard-to-impress and analytic guy)
  • he knows a thing or ten about science, but he’s not obsessed with scientific accuracy in fiction
  • he’s reading between the lines
  • he’s not fooled by the plot into thinking the characters are three-dimensional, and the other way around
  • he prefers profound implications rather than spectacular CGI
  • he can’t stand gratuitous naivity and gullibility
  • he hates redundancy and purple prose
  • he drops the book if he reads more than two consecutive pages without a change (in setting or situation, plot, character, etc.)

Basically, my ideal reader has a lot of likes and dislikes that I have when it comes to reading science-fiction. In addition to those, however, he shares some of the characteristics of the people in my life who’ve been most critical about my perspective, my choices, my writing and sometimes even my convictions. He’s basically a mixture of my most intimidating friends and acquaintances (including the online realm), and my own inner critic when I read someone else’s fiction.

He can be terrifying, and definitely hard to please, which I think is crucial for an ideal reader. But while he won’t cheer me on (boohoo), he won’t punch me to the ground either. He’s an optimist. There’s always something that can be done to make a story better, and if he’s turning his nose up at something, it’s usually a good sign that more work is needed in that area. (Which also explains why I’ve been burying myself deeper and deeper into a certain part of my WIP and won’t move on until it shines, even if I won’t finish the rewrite in the time-frame I initially set).

Yeah. My ideal reader can be a total jackass sometimes too.

What’s your ideal reader like? Do you even have one, or can you make due with writing for yourself? Is your ideal reader abstract or real?

17 Replies to “Ideal Readers and Why They Are Necessary”

  1. This is (as always) a great article and reminder. I, too, hear that writers should write only for themselves. I think I get what they are saying– it’s a protest against commercial writing that panders to be sold, rather than a work of creativity. But as a freelance writer, my art must sell and be marketable. Every time I write for a magazine or blog, I have to ask myself who the audience is, what level are they reading at, will they skim or read every word, how do I write information in an entertaining way. It’s simplified compared to the questions of the novel, but the intent is the same. It doesn’t mean I sacrifice my writing soul. It’s a reminder that I truly want my work to be read and enjoyed.

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    1. Agreed, Julie! Writing for oneself has become sort of a protest against “selling out”, but to make a living with writing fiction—which is every writer’s greatest dream, paradoxically—you MUST consider the audience, you must write for an ideal reader that represents the best & worst in your target audience. If you only write for yourself, chances are high that you’re gonna be your only audience.

      Thanks for the comment. Your analogy with writing copy (for magazines, blogs, etc.) is spot on. The audience and type of writing might differ, but the basic idea is the same. We write for the benefit of many, and the more there are, the more successful we are. 🙂

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  2. What a brilliant post. Ideal readers are important in the editing process. I belong to a large online writers group and while the variety of feedback can be enlightening, it’s also difficult when critters, who may be incredible writers in one genre, critique a different genre they are not as familiar with and try to apply the rules from one into the other as “absolutes.”

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    1. Oh, cross-genre critique is really tricky! I can’t imagine giving competent critique to a mystery or historical drama. The ideal reader (and preferably our critique partners as well) should be familiar with our genre first and foremost, and only secondly with writing rules. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment, Cindy!

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  3. It’s good to have someone to read your stories with a critical eye. What do you do when you have no one like that? Mine is such case. I had to look for a long time to find a couple. But most of the time I have to stick with myself.

    I have to disagree with this statement:

    “’I write for myself’ is a fairly common mantra in the writer world, but in my opinion, that’s a mistake. If we write for ourselves, we tend to either be overly confident in our capacity as a writer (which keeps us from learning and exceeding our limits), or we become overly critical of our work (which can stall or regularly block us, and often results in compulsive editing and the “never finish anything” syndrome).”

    I believe “I write for myself” means I write what interests me without falling in love with my story. I’m enjoying myself, not romancing my brain.

    Being confident in your skills doesn’t mean it should stop us from aiming higher and becoming more competent writer– after all the only person you should aim to surpass is the person you were yesterday. If you have a goal, you should understand this thing well.

    And being overly critical of our work is actually another side of being jealous of someone’s success. Someone [we know] leveled up before us and what blocks us is actually fear of failure to perform on the same level or higher.

    On a side note, I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “[reader] is not fooled by the plot into thinking the characters are three-dimensional, and the other way around.”

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    1. I’m not surprised you have your very own definition of “writing for yourself”, Jelena. 🙂

      Overconfidence is not the same thing as justified confidence, and over-criticizing oneself can have many different causes, depending on the person’s psychological make-up. Some compare themselves to others, some to their previous selves, some to an ideal they have for themselves (perfectionists). Regardless, no extreme has ever served people well.

      What I meant with the reader not being “fooled by the plot into thinking the characters are three-dimensional, and the other way around” is this: he’s not easily tricked into thinking a novel with a gripping plot can make up for poor, one-dimensional characters; or that a novel that’s basically a very long character sketch without any development (either interior, or exterior) is a “full” novel. A good novel—in my opinion, a good novel I would write—must have both.

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      1. “Some compare themselves to others, some to their previous selves, some to an ideal they have for themselves (perfectionists).”

        That means they still compare themselves to something that either exists or not, and are envious (‘jealous’ was the wrong word here) of that “ideal.” There are two types of this emotion: malicious envy and benign envy–benign envy might be a motivational force. And there is a whole spectrum of this emotion. Not all is extreme.
        And not sure what comparison to the previous self is to do with this, only if liberate you from tension and soften the extremes.

        ” [reader] is tricked into thinking a novel with a gripping plot can make up for poor, one-dimensional characters”

        Is this an ‘initial setting’ of a reader or develops as the reader goes through the story?

        “a novel that’s basically a very long character sketch without any development ” I have to argue with this as well–this can be a type of character development, in this case as it is unfolds before the reader (I’ve seen an article on litreactor about this, no shit.) LOL.
        Of course, if done beautifully. 😉

        P.S. I also must ask you about the progress meter plugin/widget. Is it a download, or custom-made? If it is somewhere on the wordpress org, can I have a title of that plugin, pls? 😀

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      2. If it’s a type of character development, then it’s not the character sketch I meant. What I mean is a novel about someone just being their merry selves, but not doing anything interesting (no goal, no plot) and not evolving. Usually, that type of novel rarely if ever gets published (outside maybe of literary fiction), and I’ve not seen any of its kind in science-fiction, which is what I’m interested in. 😉

        You can find that progress bar here. Have fun tinkering with it!

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      3. Thanks for the link!

        *makes notes about the meaning of ‘character sketch’*
        (I now understand I must stay away from writing advice and writers’ wisdom sites. Anything written there is not what it actually means. This is why I love math.) 😀

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  4. I definitely consider the audience when I write. As far as I’m concerned, if no one is entertained by what I’ve written, then what was the point? Pure and simple. Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t in a way that pleases me too. I just have to hope that the two areas overlap enough.

    I love your criteria for an ideal reader. Sounds a lot what I would want also. I don’t suppose you’re still looking for any other readers, are you?

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    1. Exactly, Ken. It’s not a question of either / or, either we write what we love or we write for the audience. It’s a question of finding the perfect balance between the two, without compromising our vision. And that’s very much doable! In fact, the better we are are what we do, the easier we can accomplish that.

      Thanks for the offer! 😀 I’ll remember when the need arises.

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  5. My ideal reader is actually a member of my writing group. Whenever I write I hear him in my head. He is rarely kind, but he is always right. For instance, when I first started working on my novel I struggled with names. I tagged the love interest of one of my character ‘Haagus’. Yeah, in hindsight, DUMB. At the time I was clueless. My ideal reader looked at me and said,”So you want to name a character after a disgusting fish dish, huh?”

    Needless to say after that he has been in my head throughout the whole process, most specifically when I am getting feedback. I like to argue. With everything. So when a reader brings up a point I like to explain myself. Sometimes my point is relevant. Such as when the issue is why a character is doing something. If the ‘why’ will be revealed later in the story, I don’t need to argue. I can simply ask if they would keep reading to find out the ‘why’. If that doesn’t happen, then I need to listen. ‘Why’ is one of the fundamental reasons to keep reading. If a person is questioning this–for any reason–I need to find out, heh, why! My ideal reader has taught me that listening as opposed to defending can lead me to being a better writer.

    Thanks Scott!

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    1. Indeed, sometimes we need to hear what we don’t like to hear. If our critique partners (or our ideal reader, be they real or not) can do that, we’ll be better off—and our story as well!

      Thanks for sharing that, Aubrey. You’ve got a good critique partner!

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  6. My IWSG post for this week comes close to the territory you’re charting with this post, Vero. Specifically, the middle ground that we all walk between internal motivation and outside influence. And it really is a thin middle ground that you have to find, I think. Like you said above, it can be dangerous to trust your guts every single step of the way. At the same time though, there’s also a danger in chasing what you think the “audience” is looking for. If you lean too far in one direction or the other, you’ll probably have some trouble on your hands. And that’s why your ideal reader is a hell of an ally to have on your side, if you’re lucky enough to find one!

    I’m still in the process of finding a balance myself, as I gauge the things I like to write (and read) versus what’s actually selling. I’m a weirdo who likes a lot of things that not everyone else does, but trying to sell short fiction often nets me direct feedback from editors about what they’re buying (and why my story ain’t it, ha).

    The mantra in my head tends to go something like, “Write for yourself; edit for everyone else.” At least, that’s how my process goes. I start by entertaining the child within, then I go in and clean up all the crayon marks. 😉

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    1. “Write for yourself; edit for everyone else.”

      Excellent! THIS is exactly the golden middle I was talking about.

      We should start with what interests us, what fascinates us and keeps us awake at night, but a good story doesn’t end there—it moves on to the audience, where it must satisfy a need they weren’t aware they even had. Without an ideal reader and unafraid critique partners, we’d be stuck with out own biased opinion, with only one understanding of the story. We’d limit our own creation.

      Thanks!!

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  7. Love it! I always thought about an audience while writing, but I never thought at an ideal reader. I’ll create one now for the novel I’m writing, as I write different styles I wonder if my ideal reader will change gender from one novel to another 🙂

    Lu

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    1. Sure! The ideal reader depends on the novel — new novel, new ideal reader. The possibilities are endless! 😀

      Thanks for the comment, Lucy!

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