The Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing, Part Four

As a student of the art of fiction, there are several axioms and pieces of advice that I come across again and again; "show, don't tell", "write what you know", "don't trick the reader", etc. These aren't items from a single book, they're everywhere. Some of them surely originate with specific authors, but as ideas they've taken on a life of their own, becoming more than something one person said.

In this series, I will try to gather all those admonitions, encouragements, and adages into a single, definitive list; the Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing. Hopefully this will be as fun and educational for you as it is for me.


Commandment Four: Thou shalt honor the reader as thyself

We've already touched on this issue in Commandments One and Three, but in case it's not obvious, all these commandments are connected. In fact, I could probably have boiled them down to fewer than ten, but then I wouldn't be able to use all these dank Ten Commandments memes I made.

In any case, there's still plenty to say about respecting the reader. It's essential to be the path of least resistance and give your readers what they want--a story. And it's important to assume the reader is intelligent, and able to pick up nuances on their own. But that's not all there is to it.

Whether to write for one's self or for potential readers is a question many authors ask themselves. And unfortunately, the debate usually takes the shape of artistic integrity (writing to please yourself), versus commercialism (writing to please audiences). Of course, it isn't that simple, and like many things, you can and must have it both ways.

Yes, write for yourself. Write what you know, and what you like. Write something you would like to read. If you don't like what you're writing, it's going to turn out bad, period. Readers sense disdain for the material, even if they can't put their finger on it.

But you can't just write for yourself, at least not if you're trying to make a living off your art. Heck, even if writing is something you do in your spare time, you surely do it because you aspire to have your work read by someone who other than yourself. If you write for yourself only, chances are you don't spend much time on writing advice websites like this one.

If you want the attention of readers, you have to create something worth paying attention to, and you have to make it easy to pay attention to, or nobody will. That means writing simply and clearly. That means being as original as you can. That means not intruding on your story, or doing any of a dozen other things that drive readers away. Remember, people are looking for reasons to put your book down. Don't give them any (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)

Writing for the reader does not mean pandering to trends. It does not mean aping whatever is on the best-sellers list that week. It does not mean trying to copy the style of an already successful author. These things might get you a few sales from readers who are so addicted to a particular genre, style, or author that they'll buy anything that fits the mold. But they won't get you the recognition you're really after. And they'll brand you for life as a copycat. Even if you go on to create something startling and worthy, people's low expectations of you will be a big hurdle to get over.

So when I say "honor the reader", I don't just mean you should write clearly and avoid intrusions. I mean you should remember what you're doing when you write a story. You're creating something that has the power to induce lifelike experiences in others. Make sure you're giving them an experience worth having. And remember that writing lasts more or less forever. That's the sacred power of the written word. A thing said is gone the minute it escapes your lips. A thing written can withstand the test of time. Make sure you want it to.