“…to be conscious of what the reader needs and only what he needs…”
I first encountered this bit of writerly advice in 1984 in The Antioch Review, in a piece written by Nolan Miller, who was then Associate Editor. It has served as a North Star of writing for me ever since.
Miller was a short story writer and novelist who taught creative writing at Antioch College for over fifty years. The Antioch Review, remarkably, has been publishing continuously since 1941. It publishes fiction, essays, and poetry, from both emerging and well-known authors. When it published a story of mine, it was a huge thrill in my literary life. If you want to read one of the best literary magazines around, subscribe to it: http://antiochcollege.org/antioch_review/subscribe.html
Miller composed his piece as an imaginary interview between a Reader, Writer, and Editor. He posed the questions that he wished to answer as the editor of the Review, such as: what are literary magazine editors looking for; how do they make decisions; what makes them accept a story; what do writers need to do to develop; and much more, all articulated in a gracious but authoritative voice evoking a professor sitting in a old wooden English Department chair with a pipe in his mouth. Though the world of publishing has changed dramatically since Miller wrote this piece, his advice about writing is still relevant. Some things about literature remain the same, eternally let’s hope. You can read the whole article at this link: Editorial: Reader, Writer, and Editor: An Imaginary Interview (Copyright 1984 by the Antioch Review. First appeared in the Antioch Review, Volume 42, and Number 2. Reprinted by permission of the Editors.)
When I first read “to be conscious of what the reader needs and only what he needs” it struck me as an essential key to writing that I had been missing. I don’t believe I had ever thought about the concept, or at least I had never heard it articulated so directly and with such command. I didn’t become enlightened at that moment. But Miller showed me what I needed to work on: to give the reader what she needs and only what she needs. Seemingly simple. Very difficult to master.
In Miller’s words: “Learning to be direct, to be honest, to be always conscious of what the reader needs and only what he needs requires tremendous self-discipline.”
What does the reader need, exactly? And as the writer, how do you know what that is?
What we need may be necessary, relevant, functioning information. It may be tone, the writer’s attitude towards the material that helps us interpret it. It may be the kind of original, concrete, specific, sensory detail I talked about in my August 8th post. It may be starting the story or memoir in the right place, striking the key note from the get-go. It involves writing with the kind of authority that says the writer knows what she’s doing, and has found the best possible way to do it. It’s a lot of things, and it varies from piece to piece. But it comes down to the feeling that as readers we can give ourselves up to the writing because the writer knows what works.
How does one come to write with that kind of authority and certainty?
Through a lot of work. A publishable piece requires a lot of process, a lot of stages through which the material passes until the piece becomes clear in its terms, intentions and effect. It’s a matter of keeping at it; patience with the process; getting feedback and using it wisely; learning to the best of your ability how to be the reader of your own work—not just the writer.
As Miller says, “Writers learn what they teach themselves, self-stimulated, self-instructed, passionately devoted to practice, practice, practice… By studying the art, by learning to read like a writer, closely examining what other writers have published, whether it’s good or bad. All writers we know are motivated readers.”
Motivated reading is really the key, along with lots of writing. By reading like a writer, you build up the reader in yourself. This developed reader in you has a better chance of knowing whether you’re in the ballpark, and if not, how to fix it. You inculcate a sense of when and how something is working, based on a lot of models that have become embedded in your psyche.
One of the reasons it’s hard to master what the reader needs is that we’re used to reading mainly published work. By the time something makes it into print, it’s usually been through many drafts, has probably been critiqued by a number of readers, and has been worked over by an editor. By the time it gets to us, the readers, the writer knows what the work needs, and consequently what readers need, and only what they need. We, as readers, don’t get to see the sausage being made.
And if knowing what the reader needs isn’t enough, there’s the equally important “…and only what she needs.”
This is as challenging as giving the reader what she needs. It has to be just right–not too much, not too little, but only what is needed.
Right about now you may be saying, Let the reader take care of his own damn needs! I’ve got plenty of needs of my own just trying to write the thing!
You’re entitled to a bit of a hissy fit. Writing is really hard. Hang in there!
“Only what he needs” requires self-discipline because it’s so easy to overdo it. I do it all the time (as anyone following this blog can attest to). You can’t see your own stuff with a cold eye, especially in early drafts. It helps to have a good editor. You need to have someone who sees where things aren’t working, where you’re overwriting, telling more than you need to, spoon-feeding the reader, off on a tangent, boring us to death, or wallowing in the irrelevant or non-functioning. You need a good pair of eyes and someone with the balls, male or female, to tell you directly where you’re giving the reader more than he or she needs.
I’ll give you an example from my own writing. I recently added this to my novel-in-progress:
I was still asleep on the Victorian sofa the morning after my debacle at that bar when the phone rang a little after 6:00 a.m. It rang and rang, first as a distant annoyance, and then as I began to come to, it was ringing loudly right in the hall and wasn’t going to stop until I got up and answered it. My mouth felt dry and foul, and I lurched to the right as I got to my feet. I saw that I was still in the same khaki skirt and oxford blouse from yesterday, my skirt sticky on the back, from what I had no idea and I didn’t want to know. I’d throw it away so I never had to see it again. What had I been thinking last night! My head felt misshapen, my joints stiff, and then I remembered with a groan that I had actually called Ron O’Loughlin to come get me. What must he think!
Okay, this is making me groan, as I’m sure it is you.
Here’s how my husband Jeff edited it.
I was still asleep on the Victorian sofa the morning after my debacle at
thatbar when the phone rang a little after 6:00 a.m., It rang and rangfirst as a distant annoyance, and then as I began to come to, it it wasringing loudly right in the hall and wasn’t going to stop until I got up and answered it. My mouth felt dry and foul, and I lurched to the right as I got to my feet. I saw thatI was still in the same khaki skirt and oxford blouse from yesterday, the myskirt sticky on the back, from what I I had no idea and Ididn’t want to know. I’d throw it away so I never had to see it again. What had I been thinking last night!My head felt misshapen, my joints stiff, and then I remembered with a groan that I had actually called Ron O’Loughlin to come get me. What must he think!
My novel is full of not-great writing like this. But the point here is that I was giving the reader many more words than were needed. There are other sins of giving the reader more than he or she needs, of course—too much information, too much back-story, too much spelling-it-out rather than letting the action carry things, being in love with something because you wrote it or it happened to you. All kinds of sins. It can be enormously helpful to have someone you trust who knows what they’re doing point out the problems.
“…to be conscious of what the reader needs and only what he needs….”
Think of it as a literary koan: contemplate it, as I do, over and over on the path to enlightenment—in this case enlightenment about how to write something that might actually be published.
"We, as readers, don’t get to see the sausage being made." I love that sentence. And am so glad as always to read your ideas. Such a help to me.
Hi, Jean, thanks for writing. I hope your new novel is going well. Folks, if you want to read a good novel, read Jean Grant's THE BURNING VEIL. I blogged on it on Dec. 4, 2010. https://paulettealden.com/blog/the-burning-veil-a-…
Looking forward to your new "sausage"!
Love this. Another one of those great subtleties of writing! I am reading Richard Ford's new novel Canada and recommend it as a model of this. I am just amazed by how he creates characters you know, of such complexity, not through complexity but through . . . what? He just does, sets them off in your mind till you are the one creating them. Or something. I noticed that the Times just praised Michael Chabon's new novel but faulted it for going on too much—same with Auster's new memoir. A fault of mine, as you know. But I bristle when a friend calls this self indulgence—the writer never sees it as that but as trying to give the reader more. It's a really hard thing to see and to pull off, as you say.
Yes, Richard, it seems such a simple concept! But definitely hard to do. I just read Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, and your description of how Ford sets off the characters in your mind until you're the one creating them is so true of Brooklyn too (and well put). Or maybe I just felt I became the main character, living her life. At any rate, I also see in retrospect how Toibin was giving me just what I needed and no more. What was there was perfect. I'm glad to hear you like Ford's new novel. Maybe giving the reader what he needs and only that is even harder with memoir, because there's all that real life the writer has to distill or leave out, and it's hard to tell what and only what is actually needed for the work itself. What you said about wanting to give the reader more made me think of cooks forcing seconds on someone, even with the best of intentions–sometimes less is enough.
Props to Jeff. That's a great bit of editing.
Thanks so much, Paulette. Just reread “…to be conscious of what the reader needs and only what he needs….” Plan to stick it on top of every page I edit.
New book is a joy to write. Tentative title, "French Tenderness."
Love the title!
I now know what "props" means–
Yes, but it's embarrassing that I had to write something so bad (what else is new — both the bad writing and the embarrassment, but usually I try to keep it to myself). I do think it takes another set of eyes. I actually edit HIS stuff, and while Jeff is a brilliant editor of mine, he needs my eyes for his writing. 'Nuff said.