Monday, June 27, 2011

Who Is Your Ideal Reader?

In On Writing, Stephen King discusses writing for an ideal reader. This passage that has been simmering in my head all day, much like a rotisserie chicken rotating on a spit:

Do all opinions weigh the same?  Not for me.  In the end, I listen most closely to Tabby, because she's the one I write for, the one I want to wow.  If you're writing primarily for one person besides yourself, I'd advise you to pay very close attention to that person's opinion.....And if what you hear makes sense, then make the changes.  You can't let the whole world into your story, but you can let in the ones that matter the most.  And you should.

Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader.  He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time.....You'll find yourself bending the story even before Ideal Reader glimpses so much as the first sentence.  I.R. will help you get outside yourself a little, to actually read your work in progress as an audience would while you're still working.  This is perhaps the best way of all to make sure you stick to story, a way of playing the audience even while there's no audience there and you're totally in charge.

King's philosophy makes perfect sense; it's impossible to please everyone, as that automatically sets us up for failure.  By identifying a "target" reader - the him or her we hope to impress - we can use that profile to help make decisions along the way.  What direction will that reader most enjoy?  What twists will make that reader turn the page?  What can I offer my I.R. that no other book has provided?

In February, JM Tohline discussed the benefits of writing for an audience of one. He shared that The Great Lenore, his debut novel released on June 15, was written for himself.  His thinking was that if he loved what he created, readers with similar taste would love it as well.

Jordan went on to point out the following:

I have now realized that there is a reason they do not advise that you "write for you." At least, not to write strictly for you. It is because you are biased. Either positively or negatively. Toward yourself.

Makes sense, right?

And so, they tell you to write for someone else. And the same foundational principle holds true: If that reader loves your book, then everyone else who likes the same books as that reader will love your book.

For months, I've pondered if I have an ideal reader, figuring if I need to think about it, I obviously don't.  My hope is I'm writing a story to be enjoyed by a wide range of readers.  All teens are involved in the bullying cycle, either as a bully, victim, or bystander.  Likewise, parents of teens are involved in the bullying system, as they are raising either a bully, a victim, or a bystander.  Of course, should my book ever be printed, not everyone is will like it.  So, who exactly am I writing it for?  Who am I aiming to entertain?

After some extensive reflection, I discovered I do have an ideal reader.  I've always had an ideal reader, I just didn't realize it at first.  Despite my current job situation, I'm fortunate to have maintained positive relationships with many former students.  Now that most of them are licensed drivers, they seek me out in Borders and join me coffee.  They send e-mails as college acceptances arrive, to share their prom date, and to complain about how "hard" high school is (just wait, right?)  For this project, one student happens to be my ideal reader.

My I.R. is entering his senior year of high school.  It's been four years since he sat in my classroom, but we never lost contact.  In fact, I've become friends with his entire family.  We've had many dinners together.  His mom is one of my strongest references; she is also one of my top supporters on this writing journey (and continues waiting for the day she defeats me in a Words With Friends match).  

When I first babbled about wanting to write a novel, this student did more than tell me to go for it - he cited specific reasons why he thought I could.  Teachers are supposed to motivate kids; it's rather surreal when they motivate us.  Others in the field can identify those mature beyond their years; my I.R. is one of them.

To me, it makes sense to have a teen I.R. while writing a YA Contemporary.  I am writing for teens, so why not choose one of them.  My I.R. witnesses the very situations I'm addressing in the book; he's the same age and gender as my protagonist.  They share tastes in books and music, enjoy the same food, and grow up in similar family circumstances.  And, although my I.R. is not an avid reader, he is capable of being reeled into a good story.  I
t's my job to write one that pulls him inside.  

If I'm successful, my ideal reader will love my book.  And, if my ideal reader loves my book, hopefully those with similar tastes and preferences love it as well. That's really all I can hope for.

Who is your ideal reader?  How was he or she chosen? 


  1. Glad you have such a perfect reader in mind. With my second manuscript, my idea of the perfect reader and audience changed based on those who enjoyed the first book. My three critique partners were selected based on this expanded audience, especially Anne, because I'd never imagined so many women would enjoy my science fiction story.

  2. This is something to think about. I have an Ideal Reader in mind and I think it's helping me. It's true, we can't please everyone, something I battle with a lot, but if one person loves what we do, then it makes it shine.

  3. It's a great thing to have in mind when writing :-)

  4. This was a really interesting read, Paul. I must say that I've never considered an I.R. It may take some time!

    Duncan In Kuantan

  5. This one has me pondering. I know who I'm writing for, but it's not one person. Still, I see King's point. Great post, Paul. It's wonderful to have a teen reader:)

  6. Great post, Paul! Since I'm writing memoir with funny, sad, amusing, bittersweet, etc. happenings in a woman's life, who came of age in the 1960s ......I am hoping that other women my age (and/or younger and older!) will love it, and will tell others about it, etc.etc...!

  7. Well put! Awesome post! My ideal reader: young, cool, and funny. Everything I'm not.

  8. Ideal reader? The one that actually buys books.

    : )

  9. Thanks for the comments, folks!

  10. This is an interesting point. It's been a long time since I read On Writing and I'm thinking it's time to read it again! If I think about it, I do have an IR for my first novel, but I need to think a little more about the second one.

    Tina @ Life is Good
    and I are joining forces in another challenge. We're going to visit and comment at each of the participants, starting with the reflections post. We hope you'll join us!

    Shannon @ The Warrior Muse


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