09 February 2015

Making Sure Readers Get It

Do you ever worry when you're writing something that your potential reader just won't get it? Not just the big picture stuff, but every tiny detail that you've put hours and hours of effort into writing? What if they miss the symbolism, or all of the intricate character details that you've thrown in? What if you spent forever crafting the perfect sentence and they breeze through it without even stopping to think? Is this something even worth worrying about? And how do you deal with it while you're still writing?

Think about all of the tools you use when you're writing as if they were on some metaphorical writer's utility belt. You've probably got pens or pencils, white-out, scissors, maybe. Well, my fake utility belt has a sledgehammer. If I feel like a reader isn't going to get it, then I want to bash them over the head with the idea until they do. What this usually means when I'm writing is that I'll spend a lot of time devoting words to a particular idea to make sure it sticks in the readers' heads and they understand what I'm trying to say.

This usually results in a huge amount of overkill. If you're constantly saying to yourself, "no, they won't get it," and then you write another sentence to make sure they do, how strong can that sentence really be? What are you saying that you didn't say before?

You should probably understand that not every reader is going to get every single detail. You can't be there next to someone reading your book, pointing to each significant line and saying, "Did you get this part?" I think readers would be annoyed if they had to deal with that. They want to be able to enjoy the story. And if they get it without your help, they would probably be even more annoyed, thinking, "Yes, I got it! Can we move on please?"

I think the solution is to just relax a little. Just say what you need to say and let the readers interpret things. They don't have to be babysat throughout the whole book. There's a moment in my manuscript where one character is basically giving in to his dark side, and I thought a good way to symbolize that was to have him wear a black shirt. But there was this nagging voice in the back of my head, sledgehammer in hand, telling me to add a sentence. Have the narrator say something like, "I guess he was giving in to his dark side." But I knew I didn't need that sentence. The reader will most likely understand this fact without me having to point it out to them. And if they don't, then so what? It's not the end of the world. Not everyone is going to pick up on everything, and that's ok.

So take the sledgehammer out of your writer's utility belt. You really don't need it. You can trust yourself that you got your point across without overdoing it, and you can trust your readers to understand.

Anyone else have a sledgehammer in their tool belt? Have you ever had to hold yourself back from overwriting something? 


  1. If someone is getting all the symbolism in my stories, then they are finding way more than I added.
    I'm bummed when favorite side character doesn't get noticed.

  2. This is great advice! And I think it's something that takes most writers some time to accomplish. Not because they don't have faith in their readers, but because they doubt themselves and their writing.

  3. I tend to overwrite...a lot. But that's where editing comes in and I slash out unnecessary phrases and descriptions. When I put into symbolism, I often wonder if readers will catch it, but if they don't then it's my little secret that I can point out later (maybe I on my blog).

  4. As reader, if I were given the option between too much explanation or too few, I would rather go with the latter. Really most of readers don't like to be pointed out to every single detail. We like to figure things out by ourselves and sometimes we also like to come up with explanations that the author didn't even imagined.

  5. All that extra doesn't need to be in the story. I'm just happy if someone gets the overall message of my books.

  6. I have written a few things that do have some very deliberate subliminal messages/symbols. Will readers get it? Some may, some may not. If they don't, the story isn't going to be any less meaningful for them, it will still be a good story.

  7. I don't think I pay attention to symbolism all that much. Hmmm, might be a bad sign for my writing.

    What's really helpful, if I want a particular point to get across, is to take it to my critique group. we have a format where the other members discuss the work, without interjection from the author, since the author won't be there to hold the readers hand. Then the author can see who picks up on what, or if something is completely missed, ask about it after the discussion is over.

    Not everyone is an attentive reader though. For instance, I took a piece to critique group that had one character say to the MC, "Must be nice having a rich husband." Someone in the critique group went on for over 2 minutes about how the MC wouldn't be working in a supermarket based on this line, and that it'd be more appropriate for the MC to work in some part-time classy job selling art or working at the Co-Op, if she worked at all.

    The critique group member failed to see the next paragraph when the MC responds, "He's not rich."

    Sometimes, there's just nothing we can do about it.

  8. I write with a lot of subtle humour, so I'm never worried most people will get what I'm trying to say, I just count on them being confused. But the subtle humour isn't the main point, so I'm not that worried. I utilize a lot of Easter Eggs in my blog too, but I don't expect anyone to get those. Sure, I tag posts with Easter Eggs with the tag Easter Egg, but I don't hit them over the head with what it is. If they want to know, they can ask.

    But I understand about hoping everyone gets a main point you are trying to highlight. In my Writers Block series, I foreshadow to an event that takes place several episodes away and I often wonder if people pick up on the foreshadowing. But even if they don't, eventually they may get it. Or if they reread, they will say "Hey, he was talking about THAT". All I really care about, is that I'm appreciated as a writer.

    But you give great advice. If we use a sledghammer to beat the point across to people, they are not going to want to keep reading. No one wants to feel they are being talked down to (holding their hands over each clue). If they get it, they get it. If not, well, there are other readers.

    Nice blog. Visiting after seeing your interview on Fey's site.

    PS - Sorry, I tend to write lengthy comments.