Why Every Writer Needs an Ideal Reader

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Moved to Tears

Last week, Fred read the draft of the first chapter of my second book.

He was ten minutes in when I scooted over to his desk, which is adjacent to mine in the tiny second bedroom we call our office. I expected to see him wincing in pain, cursing himself for marrying a writer and being subjected to the monkey puke that is a first draft.

Instead, he turned and gave me a big hug, hiding his face in the crook of my shoulder.

It’s that bad, I thought. He’s trying to find the words to tell me that this draft has no redeeming qualities, and that I needn’t waste the computer space it’s been allotted.

I broke our embrace it to meet his eyes, which were uncharacteristically red and teary.

Sweet Jesus! He’s crying. This man never cries—ever.

“Are you crying ‘cause it’s terrible, or decent?” I asked.

“It’s more than decent,” he said. “Let me keep reading.”

ideal_reader
It helps to picture your ideal reader. Here’s mine, showing his silly side.

My Ideal Reader

Fred is my first and ideal reader, a concept I learned in 2011 when I was devouring every book on my craft in preparation to make the giant leap into my truest calling as writer and author. In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King calls wife, Tabitha, his ideal reader.

“If you know the tastes of your Ideal reader at least half as much as I know the tastes of mine, it will be not difficult for you to imagine what he will like, and what–not.” –Stephen King

Why We Need Ideal Readers

Every writer—from the full-time author to the struggling artist with two jobs who squeezes in 30 minutes of pounding out the prose between shifts—needs an ideal reader.

Here’s Why:
1. Ideal readers keep us accountable. We know they’re waiting on us, eager to devour our drafts and support us in our craft. They’re ready to tell us what works and what doesn’t—and we need their expectation and the accountability to keep producing. When we know someone is waiting to read it, we’ll write it.
2. Ideal readers keep us grounded. When we know we’re writing for consumption, we’re more likely to be willing to let go our of little “darlings” and therapeutic habits. We want the reader to connect and engage—so we’re willing to work with the door closed first to ensure that when we do open the door, the prose is digestible, though imperfect.                                                                  3. Ideal readers keep us from getting stuck. When something’s not working, or we’re simply tired of a project and want to give it up, ideal readers remind us of we set out to accomplish.

How Do You Choose an Ideal Reader?

Ideal readers can be trusted friends, mentors, partners, someone from a writing group, readers of your blog, or yourself. Anne Lamott used to tell her writing students to be their own ideal readers and “write what you’d like to come upon.” But If you must be your own ideal reader, heed her advice:

“… learn to be more compassionate company, as if you were somebody you are fond of and wish to encourage. I doubt that you would read a close friend’s early efforts and, in his or her presence, roll your eyes and snicker. I doubt that you would pantomime sticking your finger down your throat. I think you might say something along the lines of, ‘Good for you. We can work out some of the problems later, but for now, full steam ahead!” –Anne Lamott

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of shared recently how she kept her ideal reader in mind as she crafted Eat, Pray, Love: 

“I think it’s an incredibly important thing to write books TO someone — to someone very specific. Otherwise you are writing in a vacuum, speaking to the empty air. With each of my books, I have chosen carefully before beginning, “Who am I talking to?” The person I choose to speak to as I write defines the whole voice of my book. Because if you ain’t writing to somebody, then you ain’t writing to nobody…that’s what I believe.”

Who’s Your Ideal Reader?

Writers need to be solitary creature who shut out the world, voices of distress, nay-sayers, and the Internet in order to accomplish anything. But then we must open the door and invite others in to see what’s working—and what needs work.

With whom do you share your creative work? Do you find it difficult to share or liberating?

*Editor’s Note: I should add that my mother is also my ideal blog reader, as she reads every post and lets me know what errors to fix. Thanks, Mom!


5 thoughts on “Why Every Writer Needs an Ideal Reader”

  • Dana, thank you for sharing this! So glad your sh**y first draft (Anne Lamott) is going well and that you have Fred’s tears of affirmation! I first became a reader for my friend (NY Times bestselling author) Jan Karon, and she told me, “If you’re not going to be honest, then don’t read this. I need honesty above all. Tell me what you think and, where you’re able, how to fix it.” So that is what I tell my readers. I am very careful about who I choose to read my drafts. I choose people who are articulate and well-read and, often, are writers themselves. I feel I can trust them. If someone comes back and says, “This is really good!” and they don’t have much else to say, I know they aren’t reader material and I don’t ask them again. Thank you again for this helpful post. I know it will be an encouragement to many! Laura

    • Wow, you were a reader for Jan Karon! You are the ideal reader of all ideal readers, Laura!

      Jan was right: honesty, above all, is of great value to the writer. I also like your qualifications (articulate, well-read, and often a writer).

      I’m looking forward to reading your manifesto once it’s out. Please let us know so we can share.

      Thanks for commenting, I’m glad this was helpful.

      Best,
      Dana

  • I think I am still trying to figure out the answer to the question. I imagine I would use different readers for different genres of books, but there are some traits any reader must have in common – honesty, kindness, an open mind, a love for the written word. Good question, Dana!

    • Thanks for commenting, Amy.

      Indeed, ideal readers for different genres makes sense. I love that you tweeted that your daughter was your ideal YA reader. 🙂

      Best,
      Dana

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