Readers And Writers

Special thanks to all those who participated in Spec Faith’s Shredding, Round Two. I couldn’t help but think as I read through what everyone had to say, how vital it is for writers to hear from readers, not just other writers.
on Feb 13, 2012 · No comments

Special thanks to all those who participated in Spec Faith’s Shredding, Round Two, the critique of novel openings. If any of the volunteers who made their manuscripts available would like to own their work and make comments, please feel free. The only reason we adopt the “anonymous” tag is so that those commenting will feel free to respond without any bias ( e.g. Aw, so-and-so is such a nice person and I know they’ve been trying so hard, so I’ll limit my comments to just the positives).

Of course, those who vote in the poll (still active for one more week, if memory serves me correctly) and those who comment make this little exercise useful. But I couldn’t help but think as I read through what everyone had to say, how vital it is for writers to hear from readers, not just other writers.

True, writers have experience and can perhaps explain the why of our opinion based on writerly rules and principles — all very helpful, but at the same time, writers also tend to think in terms of our own writing style. It’s hard to divorce ourselves from “this is what I would say.” The truth is, what I would say has no bearing on what another writer should say. My style, my voice, my understanding of the writing craft are … well, mine, and our writing, like our fingerprints and our DNA, is uniquely individual. What we say, how we say it, and how we sound when we say it reflect our personality, history, worldview.

Based on this last point some might think a critique exercise is futile then. Not at all. A couple factors make them vital. First, there’s a utilitarian factor involved in writing — writers can break any “rule” (those that don’t actually exist) they want, as long as what they write works.

J. K. Rowling’s speaker attributions in the Harry Potter books serve as a good illustration. Over and over I’ve read from contemporary writing instructors, and heard from others at conferences, that writers should not fill their work with adverbs, those pesky –ly describers used to prop up weak verbs. Especially writers are warned away from adding them to the “so-and-so said” line identifying the speakers in conversation, the reasoning being that the context and dialogue should be strong enough so as to render the adverb redundant.

Along comes Ms. Rowling, though, and peppers her books with attributions like “said Aunt Petunia promptly,” “said Aunt Petunia rapturously,” “said Harry tonelessly,” and “said Uncle Vernon nastily.” (Examples taken from pp. 5-6, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).

Bad writing, bad writing — she’s breaking all the rules, many writers cried. (I was one of them.) The thing is, readers obviously didn’t care. Ms. Rowling’s use of adverbs didn’t cause them to stop reading. It didn’t yank them out of the fictive dream or disrupt their enjoyment of the story. I daresay most readers did not even notice.

The point is, though Ms. Rowling’s style in this area flies in the face of conventional wisdom, it worked for her in her Harry Potter books. Therefore, who’s to say it was wrong?

But this point might seem to favor the view that critiques are meaningless. On the contrary, writers think what they put down is good writing — otherwise we wouldn’t have it there. Only readers can tell us if it actually does work. Here other writers who have been schooled in the contemporary wisdom aren’t so helpful. They will tend to think less about whether or not the phrasing works and more about whether or not it conforms to writing instruction.

There’s a second factor. Writing fiction is an art form. Not only does it convey a story, it aims to do so in a way that is creative, imaginative, original, and beautiful. Rarely can an artist fairly judge his own work in those respects. Of course what he writes feels ingenious and fresh — most writers don’t set out to write tired, hackneyed stories that put people to sleep. Where would we be without readers to hold up a mirror and steer us away from the poor application of our story’s make-up — that which does not beautify but draws attention to flaws?

One final point about critiques from readers and writers alike. Part of the reading process is writers putting down what they intend, and the other part is readers getting out of it what they understand. Unless a writer receives feedback, he doesn’t really know what it is readers are taking away from his story — perhaps more than he realized, perhaps far less. Without critiques to guide his writing, he has no way of knowing if he’s close to accomplishing what he wishes in his story.

In short, writers need readers … and fairly obviously, readers need writers.

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.
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  1. Galadriel says:

    That’s the thing…breaking the rules can sometimes work, but it has to be used carefully.

    • Precisely, Galadriel. First we have to know what’s worked for others (the “rules”), then we have to deviate from them judiciously and with purpose. Finally we have to hear from others that our different way is effective in our story.


  2. Melinda Reynolds says:

    I, too, deplore the overuse of ‘said’ and the ‘ly’ words. I was a reader long before I started writing, and my opinion is that JK Rowling can’t write.

    The dumbing down in schools over the past 40 years has produced ignorant readers incapable of discernment; they read what is ‘popular’, not what is well written, stimulating the intellect as well as the imagination.  But I also think JK Rowling and her ilk (the Twilight junk, etc) are writing to a seventh-eighth grade level… I don’t read teen books, but I doubt if those teens actually read the books either.  It’s just the ‘in’ thing to say.  The few who actually do read the books learn nothing about good writing.

    Thankfully there are also a lot of students who break out and learn on their own, and they invariably shun the above mentioned books and those like them. 

    But, as always, the $$$$$ sales will determine the market, but that’s another subject 🙂

    So which feedback is more important?  A reader is usually the who buys the book; the writer usually gives critiques  on a submission.  I prefer the objective opinion of a reader who actually reads and doesn’t go by word of mouth — ie, friend skimmed it, liked it, told reader, and now reader likes it, too.  But feedback from anyone is helpful, and a critique  from a writer can help correct overlooked flaws in grammar, plot, and characterization.

    Also, I think bad writing is noticed; to what degree depends on the reader’s knowledge and intellect, neither of which the writer has any control.

    LOL, :-D, and most people think writing is sooooo easy…

    • Melinda, the thing about the adverbs with said, most classics were written in that style. I’ve read a couple other British authors, too, and I think that style is still in vogue among our friends across the pond. It really isn’t “wrong,” which is why I don’t thing readers even notice.

      I know some young adults who read Harry Potter — all seven, though they had not read much before. I can’t say about Twilight, but Ms. Rowling’s readers were quite real.

      Her work, with all the literary references, is far more than writing for those at a juvenile reading level. Already there have been a number of scholarly books written about them. There is much to say about the series. Any time your central theme is something as weighty as death, I think it’s an indicator that the author wasn’t writing to a simple-minded audience.

      I just read a funny thing in a blog post at Goodreads. Mike Duran posted a quote from another author complaining about how knowing the rules made her unable to read a lot of fiction because of how the authors break the rules. In her rant she said, “I can’t hardly” stand to read fiction … I had to read that twice. Yes, an author complaining about others breaking writing “rules,” ignored a fundamental grammar rule we learned in elementary school. Now that’s irony. 😆



      • Yes, using adverbs with said is the classic way of writing.  Since I grew up reading the classics, it’s been quite hard to break away from using those adverbs.  Part of me wonders if the readers even notice.  I didn’t as a reader until I started studying writing and reading the “rules.”  It didn’t bother me at all.  I thought it was just how it was done!  

        Everyone takes such a firm stand against those adverbs, but part of me can’t help but wonder who created the rule.  It obviously wasn’t the classical writers… or the readers… so, who decided that all “adverbs with said” should be cut?  Or all the -ly adverbs?  I agree that rules should be broken carefully and with due caution.  But I can’t help but wonder who established the rules in the first place?  Sometimes, in my opinion, a good -ly adverb adds to the sentence rather than weakening the writing.  Sure, don’t over use it, but don’t completely outlaw it either!  Like you said in your next comment, if we all did that then we would all sound alike!  🙂     

  3. Kessie says:

    I’ve been reading Techniques of the Selling Writer. I know exactly why Harry Potter did as well as it did. It had feeling.
    Selling Writer talks about how if you’re going to write, write from your gut, with feeling. Stories without feeling are good mechanically but they don’t inspire feeling in the reader. Rowling LOVED her story and her characters, and inspires the same feeling in readers. We don’t read her because of her lovely prose. I can go read Cry the Beloved Country or some other depressing political book if I want lovely prose.
    We read her because she makes us laugh and cry and love and hate. Books like that are what sell. We’re reading for entertainment, right? Feeling is what entertains the best.
    Good grammar? As long as it conveys meaning clearly, who cares? As Jack Sparrow pointed out, “Those are more like guidelines than actual rules.”

  4. Kessie, you’re absolutely right; they are guidelines. I went through a phase where I treated them as rules, and it bugged me so much when I saw these multi-published writers doing all the things the writing instructors said not to do.  Eventually, though, I began to realize that if we all sanitized our writing via the same instructions, our writing would become very vanilla. I call it the Browne and Kinging of writing — we all toe the line, excise all the –ly words, all the –ing words, use only said for our speaker attributes,  never use the omniscient voice, etc. we would all sound exactly the same.

    Passion is certainly a key element in good writing. I love Rowling’s work for its creativity, though. She didn’t invent the wheel, but she synthesized it with the box and ended up with a cart no one had ever seen before. Great lesson for writers.


    • Kessie says:

      I’m reading Firebird by Kathy Tyers, and she writes in omniscient third-person. That’s supposed to be a huge no-no, yet I don’t mind it much. I don’t think omniscient with all of its POV-hopping became “bad” until the last ten or fifteen years. I think it just makes it easier for editors to reject all omniscient in favor of limited third person.

      • You’re right — this idea that omniscient is bad is a fairly recent trend. I suspect it came about because a lot of new authors were trying it, and when it is done badly, it really does end up confusing the reader. In my first critique group, one of our writers submitted the opening chapter of her new book and it was the epitome of head hopping. Up to that point, I hadn’t really understood what people meant by that term, but bad omniscient voice is exactly that. When it’s done well, there are smooth transitions and no confusion. Tolkien used the omniscient voice, and no one accuses him of doing something dreadful. 😉


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