Finding Your Ideal Reader

There comes a time in every writer’s life when the words poured onto pages from the heart are ready for the public.

Alright, maybe not the whole public, but a private kind of public. Stephen King refers to this in On Writing, and he mentions it as finally opening up the office door to let the world in.

Who Makes the Cut?

Choosing your ideal reader is a delicate process. Some people say never let friends or family read the first draft of your work. They might believe everything you do is great or not want to hurt your feelings, and you don’t receive honest feedback. Alternatively, they might critique your work harshly, so that’s no help either.

There are exceptions to the rule. For example, King says he writes for his wife, Tabitha. She’s his best critic and always gives him honest feedback, good or bad. When he writes, he thinks about how she’ll react to a certain scene. Will she laugh until she busts a gut? Will she feel scared? Will she smile fondly over certain passages?

I have one person I write for: James. Don’t laugh; he’s my biggest fan and my worst critic. He knows when I’m on a roll and tells me when I’ve broken the boundaries of genius. He’s also not afraid to point at something and ask, “What the hell were you thinking?”

Bonds of Trust

That is what you want in your Ideal Reader. You have to be able to trust the person’s opinion and know that individual has your best interest at heart.

It doesn’t matter if your Ideal Reader happens to be your mom, your brother or your buddy in the next cubicle at the office. As long as you know you can trust the person to give you honest feedback, go for it.

Your Audience of One

Once you have your Ideal Reader in mind, it’s so much easier to write. When I’m writing, whether I’m writing a post here, a bit of gaming on Escaping Reality or a section of our novel, I do the same as King does. I think about what might get a response from my Ideal Reader.

This helps me stay on track and see the story through the eyes of another person. If you write to please the whole world, you’re never going to get that novel of yours to see the light of day.

As the poet John Lydgate* said, “You can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

*Sorry folks, Abraham Lincoln can’t take credit for that one.

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  1. This is a dangerous concept for me because I’m a total people pleaser. I’ve always had troubles losing myself in trying to make others happy, so if I were to write with my ideal reader in mind, I’d probably change who I was to fit what I thought the other person was looking for.

    I get what you mean though – I sent my upcoming workshop out to a friend of 33 years. She’s a harsh critic and not my target market (having few or no Somedays in her life) but what she had to say about the workshop has made it 1000 times better.

    So, while I might not write for anyone, I do pick rigorous editors to give me honest opinions.
    Cheers,
    Alex

    Alex Fayles last blog post..My Summer Someday List

  2. This post made me smile. Once I made it publicly known that I was writing for a living, my entire family suddenly became expert writers and began whipping up short stories and autobiographies. I quickly learned that asking them to read anything I wrote resulted in an hour-long bitch fest! NO THANKS! I now send my most delicate stuff to Toni, a fellow writer and friend, for review.

  3. Wow, I’ve never really though about having an ideal reader. And you’re right, because of that, I end up writing, re-writing, re-wording my posts in the hopes of making it appeal to everybody who reads it.

    Thanks for this post! I’m off to find my ideal reader. :)

  4. There is one person in this world who I allow to read every word I write and who has my absolute trust and faith to be honest when he needs to be, gentle when he should be and direct when I need him to be. He has read writing that I will never show to other people as long as I live, and he is the first person I ask for a second set of eyes.

    Thank you for being my ideal reader, bro.

  5. Bill Kanapaux says:

    Ernest Hemingway* once said that as a writer, sometimes you have to be willing to kill your babies. He meant that sometimes the one thing that you think is most precious, profound, funny, etc., about something you wrote is the one thing that absolutely has to get cut.

    A good first reader helps keep you honest that way. But I don’t think the person who sees your stuff first is necessarily the person you write to. Depends on what you’re writing and why. But at least they know who you’re trying to reach and whether what you wrote works or not.

    I have a pretty thick skin when it comes to criticism but I do have one rule: No reading over my shoulder while I’m typing and no reading my journals.

    That’s the raw stuff. Can’t let an external or internal editor get in there too quickly.

    * At least I’ve been told Hemingway said this. Stephen King has said it too. Maybe even Abe Lincoln and John Lydgate for all I know.

    Bill Kanapauxs last blog post..Altered States 2: The danger of shifting baselines

  6. Like James for you, my wife is my biggest fan and harshest critic. “Look how many times you say ‘I’ or “that’s brilliant.” Either way, I know I’ll get the truth, which we all really need. If I didn’t have her, I wouldn’t have the perspective needed before I hit publish.

    Writer Dads last blog post..The Truth in Our Make-Believe

  7. I totally get this… except I write for two people:

    1. The first is me… although, like a lot of writers, I’m especially hard on myself.
    2. The second is my mom. She’s a crime fiction and thriller nut… four or five books a week. If she likes my stories, then I know I’m on the right track. If she doesn’t, well, then I know it’s got problems.

  8. Luis Gross says:

    James,

    Getting an ideal reader is so important. You won’t believe how much I’ll go over something to ensure it appeals to the majority of people.

    But, good luck with that. It’s as you say James, it’s best to get an ideal reader.

    I should be picking out one person in particular and write as if I’m trying to get a reaction out of them — then hope everyone else is half-witted enough to get where I’m going.

    Sometimes, I wish I had a harsher critic than the one I have now.

    Excellent writing tip.

    Luis Grosss last blog post..The Difference Between You and Darren Rowse

  9. @ Bill Killing your babies, huh? Nasty analogy but it fits. I’ll remember that one!

    (I hate people reading over my shoulder, too. My seven year old loves to watch me type and it invariably makes me begin to type gobblety gook! )

  10. I’ve been having to do a lot of thinking about this, blog-wise. It’s difficult to narrow down to one ideal reader – because we want to reach everybody but I’m coming to terms with the fact that specificity is important in the long run.

    Dave Navarros last blog post..Wednesday is “Rock Your Business” Day – So What’cha Want?

  11. Great post, Harry!

    Like Alex, I am easily influenced and had this issue when finding my voice for my blog. When I had no readers, I was myself, I wrote for myself. But my voice changed every time I got new readers. I wanted to keep them, so they were my ideal readers, people I just wanted to stay. When I attracted a particular group of bloggers, I changed so much my close friend stopped reading and said I didn’t seem myself anymore.

    This made me distraught, really, because I felt I was still being myself, just letting out a different part of me. But she made me see that yes, I was trying so hard to please that my writing was conforming so much I wasn’t being totally true to me. I wasn’t writing things I wanted, necessarily, or writing them in the way I preferred. As things calmed down and I become less worried about attracting numbers, I found my voice. I lost people along the way but I also gained many I now consider friends. Now I write for them because they allow me to be myself, we trust each other, and because I respect and enjoy their blogs as well. Because it’s a personal blog, I find I would rather keep this small group and write what I really want even if that means I never gain another reader. Which is unlikely anyway.

    With my blog, finding my ideal reader came after I found my voice because it was a personal blog and didn’t have a particular subject. or focus. But with fiction or children’s stories or niche blogs or web copy, as James helped me see and you’ve suggested here, it’s better to pick and really know your ideal audience first. It’s easier to write with that kind of focus.

  12. My ideal reader is my husband. It’s funny that I say that, because he rarely reads my blog. But when I shoot some articles by him he will bluntly tell me what I need to change because he’s got my back.

  13. Harry,

    At the blog, I know my Ideal Reader very well and I (almost) always write straight to that person. For my business blog, it meshes neatly with the Ideal Customer. That keeps my head on straight when I’m tempted to change direction.

    In other writing… this is a very timely post for me because I’m at this stage right now with a little side project I’ve been doing. Time to for me to figure out who to entrust with it, and though you didn’t give a checklist or a how-to, exactly, you gave me some good food for thought. I think I know how to go about finding the reader I need now. Thanks. You are lucky to have a close friend you can trust so well. That’s a precious gift you give to each other.

    James,

    Aww.

    Regards,

    Kelly

    Kellys last blog post..Observing Dodgy Discounts

  14. Brett Legree says:

    Hmm. I’m not sure if I approach it in this way (not that there’s anything wrong with it). I thought a lot about what everyone else has said before I came up with this:

    I look at it the same way that I pick out a gift. I guess I tend to write something that I might also like to read. Write for the Everyman.

    But I can also see this wouldn’t always work e.g. for a niche or business blog.

    Brett Legrees last blog post..viking fridays – a shield for its shelter.

  15. “Once you have your Ideal Reader in mind, it’s so much easier to write.”

    This is SO helpful. Instead of the overwhelming idea of pleasing every reader in the world, I only have to write to please one person? The task immediately got that much LESS daunting. Anything to rid myself of the fear or actually writing something people may one day read.

    Now, if I could only find someone to give me some constructive criticism on the things I could improve on, instead of only cheering on the things I’m doing right. ;)

    Thanks Harry.

    Nicole Brunets last blog post..What Comes Around

  16. @Nicole: I should smack you. You think we’d hold back if we saw someplace you could improve? Ok, I’ll just set James loose on you… ;)

  17. @ Nicole – Ohmigod. You incorrigible masochist… Never mind smacking, I need a stick to beat you with.

  18. Harry- The Ideal Reader. This post is at once intimate, endearing and concerning. It made me think. My ideal reader has been very encouraging…I am new at this….but maybe , maybe it is time I ask him to take the gloves off…. :)

    Umm. What is the difference between an ideal reader and an editor?

    Janice C Cartiers last blog post..Not this Color, Exactly

  19. Ow ow OW! OKAY!! Holy hell, and I thought Johnny was in pain. ;)

    Nicole Brunets last blog post..What Comes Around

  20. @Janice: Good question. I think an ideal reader is more personal. They’re the buffer between you and the editor. An IR gives you the chance to make your novel as perfect as you can get it before you toss it out into the great big scary world. The editor to me is the one who knows the technical aspect of everything, the IR is the critic of the heart.

  21. OK, now that I’ve had a minute to tend to my bruises, that brought up a good point. Does anyone ever get past the feeling that their writing just isn’t good enough? Sure, sometimes you nail it, and you know it, but is that the exception or the rule?

    Will I one day wake up and truly believe the praise, or am I (as James so delicately puts it) DOOMED to a life of self-doubt where writing is concerned?

    How do you writer folk feel about your writing even now? Please share! :)

    Nicole Brunets last blog post..What Comes Around

  22. @Nicole: Oh man, I think I’ve written enough posts here on the topic of never being a good enough writer. That’s something that always has and always will plague me.

    I have some days that are better than others, and on the bad days I can’t even look at the computer. I think deep in their hearts, even the most confident of writers is insecure about their work way deep down.

    When I get into that mode, that’s around the time James gives me a swift kick in the ass and says “Harry, you moron, snap out of it!”

    All the books on writing I’ve ever read have said the same thing no matter how big the author is. While reading On Writing, King said the same thing about himself. He still has doubts. He still has periods where nothing seems to work but he’s still brilliant.

    I just went through a horrible slump. You guys saw it. I haven’t written for weeks, yet here I am again. What does that say?

    @Everyone: Sorry if I haven’t responded to each and every one of you as is our policy here. I’m still getting back into the groove and the 3 hour delay is killer when you just roll out of bed and there’s over 20 comments to respond to.

    I’m not complaining, keep them coming and I’ll do my best to keep up ;)

    @Kelly: What’s the project? I’m curious now.

  23. Harry,

    I’m calling it a semoir (semi-memoir). Part fiction, part memoir. As a writer, there must be something wrong with me, because although I see all the flaws, I love it. That’s against the guild rules, right?

    (Is it because I’m not “really” a writer? Or is it the difference between introspective Sagittarius and cocky Capricorn?)

    Until later,

    Kelly

    Kellys last blog post..Observing Dodgy Discounts

  24. @Kelly: Nothing wrong with it at all, it sounds like a pretty cool project, but that’s why you need an extra set of eyes on it – you love it too much ;)

  25. Harry- I like that alot.

    This post has given me something to think about. I really appreciate that. Those soft shelled tender ideas we have… they really need a carefully considered Ideal Reader. Like having a soft place to land.

    Janice C Cartiers last blog post..Not this Color, Exactly

  26. Graham Strong says:

    That’s the hardest thing to come by: honest feedback. I send stuff to friends and relatives, but of course everything I write is “great”. Even clients, when I send them a review draft, it’s hard to draw out what they don’t like about a piece because they don’t want to offend.

    If you can find someone who will give you honest feedback, hold onto them!

    ~Graham

  27. I’ll repeat what I said to Nicole in private – I believe that a writer will always feel that it’s never good enough. If you reach the point that you feel you’re the best and can’t get better, put down the pen. Your time is done, buddy.

    I consistently, constantly have doubts on whether I’m good enough or not. (Yes, I do. Shhh.) Harry and I tend to buoy each other, because we admire each other’s work so much (thank god). I think if you have someone who can tell you that you rock – and you know they mean it, they’re not saying it just because – then hang onto that, like Graham said.

  28. Luis Gross says:

    Harry,

    I’m sorry. I mistook you for James and I have no idea why.

    I mean, the fact that I’m new to this blog means nothing at all — the first words say, “Written by Harry . . .”

    So, why in the world would I type James? Honestly, I have no clue — I’m dumbfounded. Forgive me for my tomfooleries.

    Luis Grosss last blog post..The Difference Between You and Darren Rowse

  29. @Janice: I’m all about a soft place to land, but even that landing has some substance to it.

    @Graham: Honest feedback is the key right there.

    @Michael: whether it’s reader or client, it comes down to the same thing – the public. Some people are just more public than others.

    @James: Someone has to keep The King’s ego in check. ;)

    @Luis: That’s okay, people get us confused all the time. You must have been temporarily blinded by James’ brilliance :)

  30. Yes, Harry. By “soft” I meant trusted… and substantial too. Substance is very important. Hm. I’m reading for someone now. I am honored to have that trust. And he returns the favor. So far though I think I have been tougher on him than he is on me… I will see what can be done about that. Thanks for writing about this just at the very time when I need it. ;-)

    Janice C Cartiers last blog post..Not this Color, Exactly

  31. My ideal reader is the person who tells me that the first 9 pages of carefully wrought prose need to go. He may be wrong about that but he told me straight up and why. People like that are just the sort you need to surround yourself with in order to improve your work.

    Great post, Harry! :)

    Jamie Grove – How Not To Writes last blog post..A Writer’s Choice

  32. Urban Panther says:

    I’m with you, James. (What, is that twice now? Don’t want to make a habit of it.) My Ideal Reader is me. If I chuckle as I’m writing, or my facial expression matches the tone of the story, then I know I’m doing a good job. I also go with my gut. When I originally wrote my post rebuting the Lion’s post on vasectomies, the tone was really bitchy. *Really* bitchy. I sent it off to the Lion to read and asked him if it was too much. His reponse of ‘OUCH, bitch!’ told the tale, but he told me to keep it like that. I couldn’t in all good consciousness to do, so I modified. My gut felt good again and I was able to hit the post button. If the Lion responds to your post, he better tell you that I am his Ideal Reader. You would not believe the stuff I have had to outright censor! LOL

    Urban Panthers last blog post..The Samson Factor

  33. Hi Harry – as someone who has a good few part written novels that were written with the aim to please the masses, I totally hear what you’re saying.

    When I made my first few attempts, I think I would have resorted to writing anything to get published. But when I look back – I’m so glad I didn’t. I think if you’re going to finish and complete a novel – it should be something you’ll be proud to see your name on – even if you have a tiny audience.

    Cath Lawsons last blog post..Internet Popularity – Are You Faking It?

  34. Harry, I read “On Writing a few months ago and really gained a lot. It’s funny though when I read that part I focused on the husband-wife thing and not the underlying insight. In some ways, my ideal reader will always be my mom. Even though no longer with me, I am always writing for her, wanting to hear her opinions, her comments and of course writing to make her smile with pride. She is the one who taught me to read, write and appreciate stories. She was my biggest cheerleader but also my coach who never let me rest on “good enough.” Thanks for this post, it helps to consciously tap into that and allow it influence your writing.

    Karen Swims last blog post..Word Press 2.6.1

  35. Robert Powers says:

    I know this is an old post. I know that it may no longer be monitored. But, as an outlet, I feel the need to write something here. I have been a writer all my life starting in my pre-teen years. Everytime I devote my energy to writing, I get acolades and praises from “family and friends.”

    Well, now I am 38. I have one 2 year old son and a second being delivered by the stork UPS in December. My wife and inlaws have always encouraged me to write. Well, This year, I decided it was time for me to get serious and persue my dreams of being a professional writer. My first effort was to read On Writing and read Writers’ Market.

    I have completed two manuscripts and have started a third. I have not found my IR yet. I don’t know why either. I have a small list of people that are wanting to be one. Is it fear of rejection? Is it fear of pirating? Is it… selfishness? Have any of you experienced reservations when selecting your IR?

    Typically (with the exception of this last month due to emotional exhaustion from trying to land an agent) I write betwen 1500 to 3500 words a day. When my heart, soul and mind are lost in the words, I can push out between 3500 to 5000 a day. You may have had this happen, it is much like tunnel vision. You see only the screen and everything around is blurred out. You know you have written something great when you look back and read and say ‘Wow, I had no idea I wrote that!’ For me, its like my mind is, for the lack of a better word, possesed by my characters in the book and they use my body as a conduit to express their stories. The book is truly the Boss!

    Also, as one poster put it, I have doubts too. Finding an Agent is brutal and leaves a writer in dispair sometimes. Or it does me anyway. I love writing. I’ve seen my manuscripts make my wife and father-in-law cry, laugh and curse. I’ve seen my written words evoke emotions from happiness to anger for the few that have gotten to read what my heart has put on paper. And it is a gift that I take seriously. So seriously, that I want to make the correct choice with selecting an IR. I have a VERY small circle of friends (like 3) to pull from. The rest are business associates. Any suggestions?

    Thank you
    RKP

  36. @ RKP – All our posts are monitored, all the time, and we respond to every comment, no matter when the post was written. Hey, it’s still a good post, no?

    To me, the most ideal reader you could share your work with is someone who loves you and knows you enough to say what needs to be said in a way that shows they still think you’re amazing.

    They’re out there. You have them all around you.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Because I got specific, I nailed it. And every month thereafter, I set specific goals for my freelance writing and nailed them, too.  Not because I’m magical, or I’m so fantastic, but because I got specific.  Instead of trying every strategy in the world, I tried specific things – and more importantly, I stopped pursuing other strategies – and the focus paid off.  Focus is key, because it helps you make distinctions about whether you’re taking the right actions to meet your specific results.  (Harry understands this.) [...]

  2. Brad’s Reader » Blog Archive » Friday Link Love 08/22 says:

    [...] Finding your ideal reader [...]

  3. [...] friend Harry MacLeod talks to us about finding his ideal [...]

  4. [...] twitter, or to your private email list, write as if you’re speaking to one person (aka your ideal reader). This is a good strategy for any kind of mass communication, so of course it’s a good [...]

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