R Is for Readers

Writers may write in solitude, but there’s nearly always at least one other person in the room. Maybe we see them. Maybe we don’t. Maybe we see them but try to ignore their existence. Maybe they’re in our own head.

Readers.

Editors are test readers of writing that hasn’t gone out into the world yet. Our job is to help prepare the writing for its debut. We’re hired because we’re adept in the ways of spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage, structure, and so on, but on the other hand we’re supposed to be professionally stupid: if the writing isn’t clear enough, if gaps and inconsistencies exist in the sentences and paragraphs we’re reading, we aren’t supposed to fill them in from what we already know. The writing is supposed to do the work.

This is fine as far as it goes, but sometimes editors forget that despite our expertise and the fact that we’re getting paid, we can’t speak for all readers. If an editor tells you that “readers won’t like it if you . . .” listen carefully but keep the salt handy: you may need it. Editors should be able to explain our reservations about a word or a plot twist or a character’s motivation without hiding behind an anonymous, unverifiable mass of readers.

readers at outdoor café

One of the big highs of my writing life was when my Mud of the Place was featured by the several Books Afoot groups who traveled to Martha’s Vineyard in 2013 and 2014.

Readers can and often do take very different things away from the same passage, the same poem, the same essay, the same story. At my very first writers’ workshop (the 1984 Feminist Women’s Writing Workshop, Aurora, New York), day after day I listened as 18 of us disagreed, often passionately, about whether a line “worked” and whether a character’s action made sense or not and whether a particular description was effective or not. It was thrilling to see readers so engaged with each other’s work, but also a little unsettling: no matter how capable and careful we writers are with our writing, we can’t control how “readers” are going to read it.

This is a big reason I advise writers to find or create themselves a writers’ group — and to develop the skill and courage to give other writers their honest readings of a work in progress. This may be the greatest gift one writer can give another.

I just came to “Teasing Myself Out of Thought” in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2016), and what do you know, it articulates eloquently and clearly some of what I’m feeling my way toward here.

“Most writing is indeed a means to an end,” she writes — but not all of it. Not her own stories and poems. They’re not trying to get a point across: “What the story or the poem means to you — its ‘message’ to you — may be entirely different from what it means to me.”

She compares “a well-made piece of writing” to “a well-made clay pot”: the pot is put to different uses and filled with different things by people who didn’t make it. What she’s suggesting, I think (maybe because I agree with her), is that readers participate actively in the creation of what the story or poem means. Readers are “free to use the work in ways the author never intended. Think of how we read Sophocles or Euripides.”  What readers and playgoers have discovered in the Greek tragedies has evolved considerably over the last 3,000 years, and it’s a good guess that Sophocles and Euripides didn’t embed all those things in their works.

“A story or poem,” writes Le Guin, “may reveal truths to me as I write it. I don’t put them there. I find them in the story as I work.”

If this reminds you of “J Is for Journey,” it does me too. And notice where that particular blog post started.

And finally this: “What my reader gets out of my pot is what she needs, and she knows her needs better than I do.”

That’s a pretty amazing and generous statement, and one editors might consider occasionally, especially when we’re editing works that aren’t simply means to an end.

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Why I Always Read the Acknowledgments

As an editor, I work mostly on completed or nearly completed manuscripts. I straighten out the punctuation here, insert a paragraph break there, invert a couple of sentences here, point out an inconsistency there . . . It’s all in a day’s work.

What I seldom think about is what an astonishing feat it is to complete a 300- or 400- or 600-page manuscript of any kind, to get it to the point where pretty much all it needs is fine-tuning.

As a writer, however, I think about this all the time. It’s the reason the subtitle of Write Through It includes “how to keep going.”

If you don’t manage to keep going, you’ll never have a completed manuscript. It’s hard to keep going. It’s so easy to stop — or to not start at all.

And the authors of all those completed or nearly completed manuscripts managed to do it. Hats off to all of them — all of us. How the hell do we do it?

This is why I eventually turn to the acknowledgments section of every book I work on and every book I read. It’s not so I can find out if my name is there, although sometimes it is. What I want to know is how the author managed to accomplish this amazing thing: completing a manuscript and getting it into print.

Lesson #1: No writer who gets anywhere gets there alone.

Most authors thank their editor(s), agent (if any), and, often, the designer, proofreader, and others involved on the production end. They may thank the parents and teachers who inspired them, and the partners and children who put up with them while they worked on the book. Both fiction and nonfiction writers often acknowledge those who read, commented on, or critiqued various drafts of the manuscript. With academic authors, the list of names can be quite long — and readers familiar with the field will often skim that list in an attempt to ascertain whether the author has done her homework.

Fiction writers often include the friends and acquaintances who gave them crash courses on police procedures, quantum theory, dog training, life in an urban hospital’s ER . . . Writing what we know usually leads us into stuff we don’t know, and there we need some help.

I recently edited a university-press book whose author had done extensive research in several languages and far-flung places. Her acknowledgments section included the people who’d opened their homes to her while she was on the road. I loved it.

Moral of story: Don’t get too caught up in this writing-is-a-solitary-endeavor thing. You may be alone when you write, but you’re not writing in isolation.