What a Reader Really Wants

There you are, perusing the new fiction in the bookstore, the noise from the café filtering into your consciousness, heard as if from within the womb. What causes you to pluck a volume off the shelf for a closer look?

Maybe it has an engaging title or a great cover. You flip it over, feel its companionableness in your hand. You peruse the photo, skim the back copy.

Should you buy it? You don’t come into a bookstore when you’re hurried. You take your time. You’re looking for something—but what?

Entertainment? Knowledge? Illusion?  Enchantment is a really intriguing idea, first brought to my attention by a certain brilliant guy who has a knack for getting to the heart of things. Recently, I had lunch with a writer friend who offered yet another idea about what a reader might want:  comfort, and as a reader, the simple truth of it registered hard.

If indeed we are moving to the cash register with that book in hand, it might just be because on some level, we think it will provide just the tonic for us. Call it mother’s milk or something stronger, the writer who can provide comfort will find his or her readers lapping up every word.

Photo credits: couch, blanket and book – Zsuzsanna Kilian, sxc; baby’s grip – Adrian Yee, sxc

Our Craving for Illusion

Readers want illusion. They want to be fascinated and charmed, and why not? And we writers have to use our witchery and glamour to provide this desired state of being. It doesn’t matter what we write, as anything agreeable will do. Even when reading the daily news, a reader still appreciates the illusion of being drawn into the scene, mind and senses engaged.

But how about the truth?

Yes, a reader may want that, as well, and maybe even a steady diet of it.

But this doesn’t take away from or even stand at odds with his craving for illusion. For no matter what he’s reading—fact or fiction—he’d like it to be presented agreeably and made as fascinating and as charming as your wizardry will allow. Add some enchantment, and he might even read to the very end.

Photo credit: Foxiq, sxc

Give your Reader a Break

Once, I attended a meeting where Robert Bernstein, then president and C.E.O. of Random House, was handed a lawyer’s memo that was so dense, he refused to read it. “Where’s the white space?” he asked, not unkindly, and slid it back across the conference table. “Give your reader a break.”

I felt bad for the young attorney involved, who no doubt had produced competent work, but who arranged his page in such a way so as to have wearied the recipient before he even began.

White space is essential on the page. Break it up. Make it easy on the eyes. Give the reader’s mind a chance to catch up to his eyes. Lay it out, in word and in logic, in the cleanest possible way.

This is the difference between something read or ignored, and what a simple fix.

Photo credits: chef by Luca Baroncini; woman reading by Frank van den Hurk, both with stock.xchng

Reader in the Room

How much do you consider your reader?

There are those who will tell you that if the answer is not at all, you run the risk of creating something self indulgent, myopic, too dense, too vague, too general, or too utterly pointless to interest another human being.

I think this is harsh and only half true.

If I had a boss, or an editor, or a magazine, or client waiting, I certainly would think about the reader, as there is a specific someone I am meant to please. For this blog, as well, I definitely consider the reader: what he comes for, and whether he found it.

But for my other kinds of work—essays, fiction—the reader doesn’t enter my mind until well along.

Essays are about sorting it out, getting it right. And the same is true for stories of any length. And there is so much to get right, from the heavy lifting to the nuance. It’s as if from this lifeless piece of quarried stone, one’s mission is to lift the Pieta and set it on a pedestal, pure and dust free.

Do I think about the reader as I chip away at stone? Not until the spit and polish stage.

I will think about him then—that busy person looking for value—and grow feverish. Somehow, I’ve produced something I didn’t expect, not a Michelangelo at all, and I will hope he will like it.

Photo credit: Martin Walls