Sunday, December 11, 2005

Writer: To thy Reader be True

Work from an outline. Avoid cliches. Show don't tell. Use correct grammar and style. These are all useful guidelines, especially for novice writers. But they all have exceptions. And truthfully, the most talented of writers, the extraordinary among us, break away from the pack by zigzagging through this minefield of 'rules'.

How does a new writer develop individual style while communicating effectively and following all these rules?

One thing we need to remember: the whole object of the exercise is to transmit a picture from the writer’s imagination to the mind of another person. If I could distill these principles and objectives into one shining law it would be: strive to be honest with the reader.

Consider that even Stephen King aims to please one person, his ideal reader, his wife. Much has been written about the importance of the ideal reader.

By considering the intended reader, I've increased my productivity and improved the quality of my finished product. This principle allows me to meander through the first few incarnations of a story and ignore the impulse to achieve instant perfection. Then, when I begin to aim a piece for a specific market, I can mold the story in a distinct manner.

As my work evolves from first draft to final manuscript, my attention to detail and flow changes as the intended reader changes. For the first draft, I tell the story to myself. I use my time to get that wonderful magic down on paper before it evaporates, because the only reader--me--will know what I mean. Once the first draft is finished I give it time to ferment.

Next time through, my intended reader changes. Perhaps it's the internal critic or the members of my critique group. This version, then, must contain all the incidents in the major conflict, in the correct order. The characters need to act consistently throughout the story. It doesn't need to be perfect yet because this reader can still read between the words on the page.

However, once I begin preparing a final manuscript, both the story and the language must be clear and focused. I entice, cajole and sometimes play a trick on my reader, but I strive always to be fair because if I can find the words that will reach him, inform him and entertain him, then I have succeeded.

I've improved my editing by searching for words or images the reader might misunderstand. By putting myself in the armchair with my reader, I can imagine what he might like and dislike about a passage. I can decide whether the images I've conjured in his mind are the same ones I saw when I first imagined the story. I'm able to shape my prose to show him my truth.

If I follow this principle and put myself in the place of the reader I can take a more cavalier approach to the other rules. If the reader doesn't notice, or even appreciates a little writerly license taken now and again, we both win.


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