Reading as a Writer: “Don’t Do It!” he exclaimed.

Feathers rustled.

Alrighty. I’ve got this theory, and I’d like to share it with you: reading books from the perspective of a writer will rarely give you an accurate impression of what your readers think when they read.

Let me explain.

I’m a writer. As a wordsmith, I enjoy clinkin’ and clangin’ at the old literary anvil, producing text that’s strong and sharp. Or so I hope.

The problem is that to be a writer, you consciously have to notice things in writing that other people usually don’t (literary techniques, word usage, etc.). We’re able to analyze the structure and elements of a story, poem, or any other piece of writing.

Why is that a problem? Because as a writer, you tend to project your unique perspective onto your readers. You see the literary world in a certain way—you notice adverbs, plot devices, and dialogue attributions because you’re trained to use them yourself—and you assume that every component of your writing has the same effect on your readers.

But I’d wager that most readers don’t care about the details that you and I, as writers, give meaning to and obsess over. Take dialogue attributions. I’ve seen it mentioned in more than one manual on writing that “said” is the only attribution you should use. “Said,” it is said, is stealthy, invisible.

To use another attribution is to draw attention to your writing and to take your readers out of the moment.

“I hate you” whispered Oliver. NO!

“I hate you” said Oliver. YES!

But, wait, no, it actually doesn’t because most readers are NOT usually reading a work with writers’ eyes. The analysis above is based on already knowing a rule, one that frowns upon using anything but “said.” A rule that was established by someone else and which has a reasoning behind it, a very subjective bit of reasoning.

So when you see “whispered” or “yelled” or “muttered,” your writer’s brain goes “What the fuck?” and you frown.

Non-writers? Totally oblivious. Their frame of mind is different from a writer’s; they point out different things that they love or hate. Don’t believe me? Scan reviews for popular and not so popular books on Amazon and other websites. You can tell almost write away who reads a book from a writer’s perspective and who represents the average reader. What they point out is VERY different

Seriously, when was the last time you heard an average reader complain about the minutiae writers tend to notice?

So, the next time you’re deciding whether to use a technique or not, think about how you’re looking at your own writing: are you seeing your work through the eyes of a writer who knows a ton of rules, or are you seeing it through the eyes of the average reader who is oblivious to 90% of that stuff?

Ok. Un-ruffling feathers.

But that’s just my humble opinion.  What do you guys think? Do writers and readers view books differently, or do we all notice the same things and just express them differently?

12 comments on “Reading as a Writer: “Don’t Do It!” he exclaimed.

  1. one of the things I keep in mind when workshopping with other writers is that they see what ordinary readers don’t see – the key is to remember I’m not writing for other writers (that’s called poetry :-) ) – I can heed what I hear but with a grain of salt.

    • Good point; I haven’t taken part in a workshop in a while, but I remember having to do the same when I heard some of their feedback. I kept a saltshaker in the back of my mind, ready for a sprinkle when needed. :)

      I love the line about poetry; how true!

  2. You know, if I get truly engrossed in a book, I am purely a reader, and I don’t do any kind of analysis. Rather like getting fully immersed in a film – there is a lot you are willing to take for granted.
    However, if a book bores me or irritates me, that’s when I find that I start looking at it more as a writer. Not so much the fine detail, but thinking about characterisation and plot development.
    I don’t think it’s actually ever possible to read your own work as a reader will, as you know it too intimately, and know all of the ‘back story’ – which bits were revised, were difficult to write, and of course the story just develops so much more slowly for the writer than the reader. We have always known Who Did It.
    Interesting post!

    • I can completely relate with you, Kat. I consume media as a reader/watcher and not a creator most times, but when something feels off, the first things I go to are dialogue, characterization, and plot development.

      I find that most readers do the same too. You’ll read or hear things like “ugh, that’s stupid! Why did so-and-so do this instead of that?!” The average reader focuses more on what makes stories interesting to them, which usually doesn’t include adverbs and dialogue attributions.

      While it’s not possible to always read your work as a reader–for the great reasons you mentioned–I think it’s good to remind yourself of the disparity and to think back on those times you did read as a reader and not a writer. That way, you can at least liberate yourself from some of the more restricting writing “conventions” and “rules” that are propagated all over the place today.

      I guess that’s more of where I’m going: many writing conventions are seen as gospel, and the justification for following them usually involve their negative effects on readers (it bores them, it’s jarring, etc.). But I find these justifications hold very little water.

      I really appreciate your feedback; since you’re going to be a bonafide author soon, I’ll be reading all of your advice even more intently. :P

  3. I guess it depends on what your writing goals are. If you want to sell, then I think appeal to the common reader. If you want to be poor but respected in the snob community, write like a m**ther f**ker. But are the two exclusive? I always find myself asking that…

    Sometimes I think that creative writing classes can do harm- except for when they don’t stray too far from just being a writing group that reads and comments. I oftentimes become too conscious and write stuff that sounds unnatural like my titties. What seems to work for me (and I’m very good at this because I grew up as a self and body conscious girl obsessed with unrealistic standards of beauty) is to completely disconnect and look in from the outside. I become the reader. If I’m enjoying reading my writing, then it’s working. Because it’s about enjoyment after all, right??? Now let’s eat and screw!

  4. Hi Mike,
    I have to admit that I read a little differently since I started to work hard at my writing. But really excellent writing can transport me right out of that mindset and into another world.

    • I know the feeling! When you find a book that grabs you and refuses to let go, the writing itself isn’t as apparent as the story being told or the characters you’re watching (if that makes sense).

  5. I think it’s the same for musicians listening to a song, or directors watching a movie. I remember a scene from “Full Monty” when the working guys are supposed to watch the dancing sequence from Flashdance, and they criticize the girl welding instead ;)
    I guess you can still enjoy what you’re hearing/seeing in general. But if there’s something wrong, with the right sensitivity you can feel it, even if you’re not a pro.

    • Good point about directors and musicians. While I don’t know any directors, the musicians I know tend to listen to songs very differently than I do. They’ll point out things that I would never have caught or criticize a song in ways that I couldn’t imagine.

      Pro or not, people definitely feel when something is wrong with a song, movie, or book as you suggested. I guess the language we use to express what’s wrong is part of the difference. :)

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing.

  6. This is the second time in the last few months that I’ve heard someone say that “said” is the only attribution that should be used. I don’t understand this. As a reader, a writer, and an actor, I LOVE attributions, and actually, I was trained to use them. “Said,” used in every single line of dialogue (if the dialogue is tagged), gets monotonous and boring. In fact, I’d be more taken out of the moment if the line read “said Oliver” as opposed to “whispered Oliver,” because I’d be sitting there thinking, “If Oliver hates that person so much, why would he just ‘say’ he did, instead of whispering it or spitting it or shouting it?” ‘Said’ distracts the reader with questions that it’s the author’s job to answer.
    (This is Rachel from ambidexteri, by the way! :) )

    • Thank you! Your example is perfect. Supposedly, writers are supposed to show and not tell. So we’ve got to inform readers that Oliver is whispering without saying he’s whispering? No matter how much anger we “show,” there’s no way we can convey whether he’s yelling, spitting through gritted teeth, or just plain talking without the right attribution.

      Sure, the reader can imagine for herself how the dialogue is being spoken, but when you want a specific effect–like increasing tension–then you’ve got to be clear!

      Thanks for sharing, Rachel. I wouldn’t have guessed it was you! :P

  7. I probably use ‘said’ 90% of the time and then other things the remainder. Take your example.

    “I hate you,” said Oliver. Taken in isolation is just a statement. It had no emotion, no movement.

    “I hate you,” whispered Oliver. Even as an isolated statement, I now have a mental image. The object of his hatred is turning or walking away, the statement is said, with conflicting purposes. It’s in not meant to be heard by the object. But it is said out loud. So somewhere, buried in Oliver’s psyche is the desire to really state it, half hoping the object hears it and turns back. To get it all out in the open. I have an image of slumped sholders as Oliver either watches the object leave or is, himself, turning from the object.

    The one word, ‘whispered’, conveys emotion and movement. Without context, I don’t what it really means. But in isolation, you can see a weath of difference.

    So you do want to use the occasional: Muttered, Whispered, Yelled, Hollered, Raged, Whined, and Spit. These add to the emotion of the scene in which they occure and turn the words on the page into a mental movie.

    But over-usage of them make them lose all meaning. That is really why ‘said’ is an invisible word. It is always used and carried with it no baggage.

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