A Plea to Writers from Mr. Average Reader

Dear Sirs and Madams:

I have been reading books all of my life and I intend to keep on doing it until the end. I am grateful to you folks for sharing the fruits of your imagination with me and other readers and I have usually enjoyed your books, to a greater or lesser degree.

But…

It occurs to me that our nice little partnership might go even better, at least for me, if I shared some of my thoughts with you—not about any particular books or authors, but about books in general—fiction, I mean. As a reader I think there are things you should know, or things you sometimes forget.

I don’t mean to be disrespectful—I’m sure writing is hard work and that you all do your best—but even the most skillful of you commit a variety of mostly little errors that are quite annoying, although easily avoided, errors that make it much harder to enjoy your books.

Let me start with beginnings. I like atmospheric beginnings as much as anyone, but don’t try my patience. I bought your book because I like stories. I like stories of several different types—adventure stories, romantic stories, stories about human relationships, stories involving history, spies, crime or science fiction. They entertain me, enrich my life and expand my world view. So start your story as soon as you can, with minimal prattle. If you don’t, I’m going to put your book down and pick up another one.

Here’s a small point: Could you give your characters really different names? When you name one guy Melvin and the other Martin, I have a lot of trouble remembering who’s who. What’s wrong, I ask you, with George or Fred? Make them as different as possible. And for God’s sake, make them pronounceable. I don’t want to have to sound them out every time I come across them. The same goes for place names.

Something else about characters. I know you usually describe them at some length when you first introduce them, and that’s good, but from that moment on, you rarely remind me of what they look like or what they do. You just use their names. I know you’ve been working with your characters for months, maybe years, but they’re new to me and my memory isn’t all that good. Remind me occasionally.

And here’s a pet peeve: Don’t confuse me unless you really need to for some reason. Tell me what time it is and where we’re supposed to be, and make sure I know who’s talking. Don’t make me guess—I probably won’t guess right. And if you’re going to do flash-backs or flash-forwards, please make it obvious. Sometimes I don’t catch on for a couple of paragraphs and I have no idea where I am.

Oh, and those fancy descriptions of the weather or the place. I know you work really hard on them and that you are very proud of them, but the truth is, after a few lines, I tend to skim. I mean, I’ve got the idea—and you don’t expect me to read every word, do you? Well, if you do, you shouldn’t. I’m living in the real world, you know. My wife and kids might be pestering me, or I might want to put the book down and catch a game on TV, or go to the kitchen. I get distracted and my attention span won’t win any prizes.

Speaking of my attention span, not to put too fine a point on it, I bore easily. I don’t know if that’s true of all readers, but it wouldn’t surprise me. We want things to happen. Big things, little things—doesn’t matter, just make sure it’s something. If you go on for pages with nothing happening, you’d better have found a way to make my heart pound or my mind buzz.

Listen, I know you sometimes want to make philosophical points, or explain complicated matters, but take it from me, your average reader, you’d better not go on too long or you’re gonna lose me. When you must do something of this kind, break it up and give it to me in digestible pieces, or interrupt it with some kind of action. Even a person stubbing his toe would do.

And a word here about paragraphs. Don’t make them too long. I get lost and I have to back up to the previous indent. And I don’t like to go backwards. And that goes for sentences as well. I’ll tolerate an occasional two-breather, but I didn’t buy your book in hopes of finding another Faulkner.

Also, I’d wish you’d be considerate of my feelings. I can’t speak for every reader, of course, but as the average reader, I can tell you that when you make me like someone and then you kill him off, I’m not going to be a happy reader. Likewise if you randomly put children or innocents in danger. This is a cheap trick, in my opinion, and if you do it, I will be angry at you and probably put down your book.

In general, we readers aren’t fond of what we think of as “cheap tricks” – memory loss, cell phones whose batteries fail at a crucial moment, a secret twin who suddenly shows up and overturns the apple cart, crucial new facts you’ve had no good reason to hold back, tardily revealed. You might think you’re providing a delightful surprise, but more often than not, it’s just a groaner.

Speaking of groaners, I’d like to mention clichés. We notice them, believe me—not just linguistic ones, but also character and plot clichés. We readers don’t expect you to come up with something totally new. In fact, we’d probably be nervous if you did. But please don’t mix four or five plot clichés together and expect us to like it. Please don’t give us unremittingly evil villains or flawless heroes. We like to read about people, people who seem real to us. We like to invest in their fates.

Don’t risk our disbelief. Most of us are eager to believe, or to try to believe just about anything you tell us. Don’t abuse that readiness by confronting us with stuff that really beggars credibility. We’re generally on your side—but if you insult us by giving us something we can’t swallow, you’ll lose us.

The same goes for facts. In general, we like facts. They ground a story and bolster its credibility. But if you get one wrong, we’ll never believe another word you write. We are extremely unforgiving about such things. It’s like that movie “Somewhere in Time,” in which Christopher Reeve successfully travels backward in time from 1980 to 1912, via self-hypnosis to find Jane Seymour, only to have the illusion shattered when he finds a 1980 penny in his pocket. Give us no 1980 pennies, please.

Another quick way to lose us is with a metaphor or simile that doesn’t work. When I come across one of those, I get embarrassed for you, and I don’t think that’s how you hoped I would react. Better nothing than a bad metaphor.

Now about endings. I want a genuinely satisfying ending, a full-blown conclusion, all the threads tied together—nothing vague, ambiguous or inconclusive, please. Don’t leave it up to me to figure it out—if I can. When I put your book down, I want to bask in some kind of feeling of closure. I want to feel I know how it all turned out.

I think I can really sum my discomfort with you in a single sentence: I get the feeling you don’t think about me very often. When you’re writing, do you ask yourself if I’ll understand what you’re saying?  Have you forgotten to tell me something I need to know?  Are you sure I know who’s talking? And finally, and most important, are you making very sure, sentence by sentence, that you’re not boring me?

Think of me as Jiminy Cricket, sitting on your shoulder, watching what you’re writing—and consult me frequently. If you sometimes read your work aloud to yourself, include me in your imagination—and listen to me. I won’t steer you wrong. I promise.

Sincerely

Mr. Average Reader

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About Harvey Ardman

I’m the author of twenty published books¬ including two spy thrillers, a popular history, and a number of ghost-written biographies, self-help books and similar non-fiction. I’ve also written many TV documentaries for PBS, the Discovery Channel and , A & E. In addition, I've written pieces for Business Week, the Atlantic Monthly and Esquire. I have a MS in journalism from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a BS in journalism from Northwestern University. My wife and I live in Maine.
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One Response to A Plea to Writers from Mr. Average Reader

  1. andyholloman says:

    harvey, bravo, bravo…… love this post…..you really hit points that I think about when reading!!! i needed these reminders.

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