Every text I write has one core aim: to deliver to my reader a meaningful experience. Of course, other aims and impulses also inform my writing. Always a desire to connect with the reader drives me, to have him see me, know me, and know something of how I experience the world. Sometimes I also want to make the reader reflect or think. Sometimes I want her to take a specific action. Sometimes I want him to feel a particular emotion or set of emotions.
But whatever else I hope to accomplish travels through my primary purpose. Unless engaged, the reader will ignore my logic, my evidence and my experiences. The reader unengaged yawns, gets up from her chair, turns out the light, and leaves the room.
Of course, however skilled I am, I alone can’t determine the reader’s level of engagement. Each reader brings to the page his own aesthetics, her own interests and likes and dislikes, her own experiences as a reader, his own sense of expectations and appropriate order.
But my audience does inflect my aim, as does my purpose for engaging that audience. I write for a child, and my text angles in one direction; I write for colleagues at an academic conference, and the writing shoots off elsewhere. A tweet responding to an insufferable troll points one way; an email to one of my children points in a different direction. But ultimately all of my decisions as a writer—about punctuation, word selection, phrasing, about metaphors and images and ideas—flow from my desire to create an engaging experience and relationship with the reader.
I know that many writers reject putting the reader first. Forget the reader, they advise. That preoccupation only inhibits a writer and can even induce writer’s block. But I choose to accept the reader’s experience as central to my trying to make meaning in language, and I do that for two reasons.
First, I don’t believe that just any utterance or arrangement of words constitutes meaningful writing. Written texts carry intentions, even if the writer can’t fully articulate that intention. For my writing to have meaning—even to me—something besides the impulse to put words down needs to emerge; something has to shape the thousand small choices I make as I draft and revise. But second, and more importantly, I value the reader’s experience because the writer is—or should be—every text’s first reader. And if my work fails to engage me as a reader, why should I expect any other reader to bother?
Though my point may seem obvious, I know from years of teaching writing—and from my own writing--that it ain’t necessarily so. I’ve read thousands of student essays that clearly hadn’t engage the people who had produced them.
Problems with grammar, usage, and structure weren’t the telltale signs—though those certainly showed up. The lack of engagement revealed itself more clearly in a flatness, in broad statements and clichés and overall vagueness about my main subject, let alone my main intention. And not only first year college students suffer from this syndrome. In advanced writing, senior level, and graduate school classes that I taught or took, I’ve seen the same emptiness and perpetrated it myself.
I don’t mean that writers do this from a lack of care about their subjects, or a lack of something to say (though I’ve heard many writing teachers make that claim—I’m think wrongly). Often when I talked with such a writer, or had the problem myself, I knew that enthusiasm, knowledge, investment, and insight were there. But somehow, these qualities hadn’t made it into the writing. Why?
Of course, part of the problem can come from lack of skill and experience. But I think it happens chiefly when I forget that what I feel at the moment of writing is different from what the reader will feel when he’s reading. It comes from not separating my energy in the flow of putting words down from what the reader will want and need as he reads. Only when I remember to respect the reader as a separate person—one with her own feelings, attitudes, and beliefs—can I understand how I might engage that person.
Again and again, I’ve seen writing, including my own, that seems to assume that the reader is already in the writer’s head, sharing the writer’s values and emotions and ideas. But that approach depends on finding an audience identical to the writer; with any other audience—that is, with everyone else—writing from that perspective ultimately won’t work. The solution isn’t to become a slave to whatever I think readers in general want to hear. In fact, it’s the opposite. The solution is for me as writer to become a better, more demanding reader of my own writing.
I try to do this in two ways. First, I work to create distance between myself as the writer of the work and myself as a reader. I can create this distance by using time, by setting the writing aside for a day or two—or more—and returning to it when I’m more removed from the heat of composing. I can also create distance by having others read my work. Their responses can give me a new perspective on the effect my words may have on readers.
Second, whenever I return to my draft in the role of reader, I try to practice being attentive to my responses and forgiving about what didn’t work. Being attentive means re-reading slowly, with pen or pencil in hand, and noticing and marking my reactions to any aspect of the text: words, phrasing, sentences, ideas, organization. No reaction is too small or too large. But this isn’t proofread or correcting. It’s about being aware of my reading experience. And because it’s not about correcting, in my role as reader, I need to suspend judgment about what’s “good” or “bad” in the text. Later, as I actively revise the work, I’ll have time to fix or cut or reshape. But this stage is a time simply to read with heightened awareness and notice what happens while I read.
In writing this essay, for example, I’ve gone through this process. I’ve finished a draft thinking, “This piece is done!” Then I’ve come back after setting it aside and seen with my “reader” eyes that parts of the draft went off in different directions, or lacked specificity, or were missing the energy I feel about the subject. And I used those “reader” responses to help myself as writer improve (I hope!) the essay.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that every reader—or even many—will love any given piece I write. But it gives me the best chance of creating for at least for some readers—and for myself—a meaningful, engaging experience.