Over the past four years, I have had the privilege of working on 150+ different writing projects. Those projects include my own books that I’ve written, articles I’ve either written or edited for my clients, and of course the dozens of manuscripts I’ve edited. While there is a lot to keep in mind with any writing project, one goal I put in front of myself in my own writing and the authors I work with is “Reader First.” But in working on those projects, I can tell you that goal is easier said than done. How exactly do I put my reader first, and why is that important?
Putting (and keeping) your reader first means that you’ve deeply considered the needs of your target audience and have written your article or your book in a way that invites readers in rather than push them away. A helpful way to think of this process is by thinking about having a party in your home. While gatherings look quite different in 2020, I want you to envision hosting a festive dinner party in your home, no pandemic fears. What kind of preparations would you make? Who would you invite? What’s the purpose of the party?
While hosting styles are varied, I would guess that you would think carefully about the guest list, making sure the invitees would know some of the same people, while maybe also intending to introduce them to some new people. You would select menu items that had wide appeal and took into consideration dietary restrictions. You would make sure your guests knew why they were coming and what to expect. You would prepare your home for maximum comfort; not in the vein of a magazine shoot, but truly to help your guests feel comfortable and welcome.
Writers should have this same mindset during the writing process. Whether you are a fiction or a non-fiction writer, this is your goal. I have edited so many manuscripts where the goal was clearly “author first” and the reader second and knew that despite the author’s efforts, the reach of the book would be limited.
For fans of the hit TV show The Office, the deliciously cringy “Dinner Party” episode is a reminder of what happens when you don’t consider your readers first. The hosts Michael and Jan were totally focused on themselves and not the comfort of their guests…to say the least. They were trying to work out their own problems and stroke their own egos in front of their guests, which just made it awkward for everyone. The same can be said of manuscripts that exist solely to stroke the egos of the authors.
Anyone who puts out content in the 21st century is debuting on a very crowded stage. Statista shared that on average, consumers spend about 7.5 hours a day consuming media. If you want a distracted reader to stick with your book from start to finish, you’re going to have to put out intentional effort in creating a quality reader experience.
So what can authors do to keep their readers first? Here are three questions to ask yourselves to shape a “Reader First” mindset during the writing process.
1. What Are My Publishing Goals?
I actually think most authors know their goals, but I think the conflict comes in when authors expect unrealistic results from goals they have set, even though there are far more opportunities facing new authors today than thirty years ago or even ten years ago. When faced with a plethora of options, authors need to get honest with themselves to cut through all the opportunities swirling around them.
Do you want to publish just to publish? Or do you intend to see your book through and reach a wider audience of readers?
Are you going to pursue traditional publishing via an agent?
Are you going to forge a path with indie publishing?
While marketing responsibilities fall on the author no matter what publishing route they take, there is a bigger onus on the reader who chooses self-publishing. If you want to publish just to say you’ve written a book and create a family keepsake, that’s great; but that will affect how you answer the next question. If you want your book to reach more readers than just your family and an obliging friend or two, be prepared to do some legwork in defining your audience.
2. Who is My Audience?
Think back to when you were dating your significant other. You probably invested time and energy into finding out what they liked and didn’t like, their life story, etc. While the methods are as varied as the couples who pursue them, the end goal is the same: you made an effort to notice the details of their life and show your interest. You can use a similar approach with your audience. Who is your audience? What do they enjoy? What does your audience need or want? You can easily create an audience sketch by thinking through these (and other) questions, interviewing samples of your target audience, and making notes of where your audience hangs out online: social media, Reddit, other forums, Amazon suggested purchases, etc.
But depending on the topic of your book, you might need to dig a little deeper. You might need to consider past experiences your readers are bringing to the table that might skew or color how they receive your words. This is not about writing for every human (because then you are writing to no one) and you can’t possibly manage the reactions of every reader. But with topics that delve into self-help, religion, mental health, and the like, it’s crucial to consider the background of your readers.
For instance, my husband and I have dealt with infertility for almost seven years and I have edited many faith-based manuscripts that try to speak to that situation when the author clearly had not experienced it themselves or interviewed anyone who had dealt with it. I was able to provide gentle feedback to the author about how their words might be received by those in similar situations, hopefully shielding future readers from unintentionally hurtful words. The author was surprised because they had not even considered that perspective, but was quick to make the suggested changes.
Any time you invest into considering the experiences, needs, and background of your readers will be well worth your investment. (Can you hear my Enneagram 9-wing talking yet?)
This is what these suggestions look like from my perspective, but what does it look like to make these adjustments on the author’s end? Author and editor Robin Patchen shares about a shift in her own writing after paying attention to reader feedback: (Fun fact: Robin was my editor on the Bloom series!)
I conducted a reader survey earlier this year and discovered that my readers tend to crave suspense and tolerate romance. I’d been trying to add more romance to my stories, thinking that, since so many Christian readers love romance, my readers must, too. How wrong I was. Now, though I still write romantic suspense, I try to focus my stories on the suspense and let the romance take a backseat. Not only does this help me connect with my readers, but it works for my style as well. I much prefer to write suspense.
While it may seem uncomfortable to make those adjustments at first, you are creating a higher-quality reading experience in a crowded media market. If you are pursuing success for your book, you can’t afford to not dig in and get that feedback from your reader.
3. How Should My Reader Be Different After Reading My Book?
With the manuscripts that I’ve edited, I’ve come in at different points of the writing process. Sometimes I’ve gotten to speak into the early development of the manuscript, but most of the time I am only performing copy editing after the main shape of the manuscript has already been formed. Even in these manuscripts, I see how some simple adjustments to the flow of the MS would go on to create a better reader experience. When your timeline is all over the place or when there’s a repetition of ideas, that lends to the feeling that there’s no thought on the journey you want your reader to take. With no clear path through the book, a reader may simply give up and go on to another book that clearly outlines a journey for them.
Before writing, you should have an idea of the journey your reader will take (it can and probably will change along the way) but each chapter should be carrying the reader closer to meeting that goal.
One manuscript I edited shared the author’s backstory, then shared about family trauma, moved forward in the timeline, then moved back into time before the major trauma. It was a confusing layout that could’ve been easily fixed. Other manuscripts just dump knowledge on the reader’s doorstep with no direction or instruction on how to apply it. When a reader feels overwhelmed, they are again likely to jump ship and turn to another book that skillfully places information or a story in front of them with a clear map of how to interact with that information. As authors, you want to give your reader as few reasons as possible to put down your book.
Writing a book is one of the most difficult artistic undertakings; why not do the leg work to make sure the impact is as powerful as it can be? Your reader (and your editor) will thank you.
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Check out Robin Patchen’s latest release.
Stay tuned for part 2 in keeping your reader first in your writing!