Trusting your readers, trusting yourself

Posted: May 9, 2014 in writing
Tags: , , ,

In fiction, as in human relations, trusting others  is one of the most important things you can do. And I don’t just mean that moment when the character makes a leap of faith and counts on his friends (cue stirring music). I mean writers trusting readers.

Trusting readers

‘it’s a respect thing, and my readers deserve that respect’ – Victoria Grefer, Writing For You

Good fiction writing is usually subtle. It hints at what’s going on, rather than hammering the reader over the head with exposition. It lets the reader feel smart as they work out what’s going on between the lines.

Doing this requires the writer to trust their readers, to assume that they are smart enough to work it out. That’s not as easy to do as you might think. After all, you want to be sure that they get the message, and sometimes the push to achieve certainty means you forget that trust. You over explain, you exposit, you repeat yourself. You might not mean to, but you’re refusing to trust your reader.

To quote Victoria Grefer again, ‘you walk a fine line as an author, because if you’re too vague, you’ll confuse your readers… if you’re always stating the obvious, you’ll frustrate and insult your readers’. But having the restraint not to over-explain can often be harder than giving enough explanation.


Trusting yourself

Why is this so hard to do?

I’d say that it’s mostly because we find it hard to trust ourselves. We doubt that we’ve given enough information, so we shove more in. We think a hint might be too subtle for ourselves as a reader, so we assume that others need help. We don’t have enough faith in our smarts to rely on those of others.

It can be a hard things to do, but if you have a bit more faith in yourself as a writer then you can also place more trust in your readers. If you find that you’re often over-expository then, when in doubt, trust in the hints that you’ve dropped. If they create confusion you can always add more cues in later.

Beyond fiction

Like many writing lessons this is valuable in the wider world. Many of the times when I’m most patronising and least willing to rely on others come from a lack of faith in my own abilities. I’m not sure I’d get something right, even though I probably would, so I ‘help’ too much – and by help I mean explain the blindingly obvious or take over.

It’s a huge problem in business, a subject on which I do a lot of reading and writing. Those higher up seldom trust in the people below them, and that’s crippling to morale and the flexibility of an organisation. But how much does that come from not trusting that they’ve got it right themselves, that they’ve put the right structures in place to let the business work?

Trust in your readers. Trust in the people around you. But start out by trusting in yourself. It’s a whole lot more satisfying, and a a whole lot more productive.


Picture by w00kie via Flickr creative commons

  1. I never thought about it that way – in trusting your readers to understand what you’re talking about. I always came at the principle from a different angle: letting readers interact with the story by leaving things out so they can fill in the blanks with their imagination. Great post!

    • That’s a good way of looking at it as well. I think that readers tend to enjoy a book more if it makes them feel smart, and letting them fill in the blanks for themselves is part of that. I suspect that the two ways of viewing this are connected – you have to trust that your readers are smart enough to work out what you’re getting at and so enjoy it, rather than getting frustrated because they can’t work it out.

  2. Gosh that’s so true… It really is such a difficult line to walk. There’s always this fear of “This connection is just so cool, and what if the readers miss it?” but you’re right: stating things outright can really kill a scene if the reader already had it on their own.

    How do you know where that line is, though? I’m still really struggling with that, and mostly I just rely on my beta readers to tell me. But at the same time, you would need hundreds of betas to get a real sense of how much is too much.

  3. glenatron says:

    I think that trust can be combined to a degree with writing for yourself. Obviously that is a dangerous commercial proposition, but often the truly original art comes from an artist who is creating the thing they want to exist, rather than creating for an audience of some kind.

    Of course that goes in exactly the opposite direction to my suggestion to think about how scenes will affect the reader, but they are quite compatible, I think.

  4. skudssister says:

    I’m not writer but looking at things from a readers point of view this makes a lot of sense. The only thing I would add is that I hate it when writers (and I’m looking at you Will Self) get overly clever and then spend a lot of time hitting you over the head with the clever…
    I am also going to remember the bit about the workplace next time we get some ‘high-ups’ in the store!

    • Sounds like the big difference with someone like Will Self is that he’s trying to show the reader how clever he is, rather than helping the reader to feel clever, and once you phrase it that way it’s obvious what will make a more satisfying read.

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