Trust Your Readers


by Josh Langston

After all, they trusted you enough to buy your book.

Let’s back up a step or two. Just who are these people who took a chance on your ability to string nouns and verbs together in an entertaining fashion? Where did they come from? Surely, they can’t all be related to you in some way, can they? I think not.

Consider these woeful statistics excerpted from the Literacy Project Foundation (There’s plenty more to read on their website, and I urge you to spend some time there.):

  •  50% of adults cannot read a book written at the eighth grade level
  • 45 million are functionally illiterate and read below a fifth grade level
  • 44% of American adults do not read a book in a year

It’s safe to say that few, if any, of your readers come from these categories (and obviously, I’m not including books written for non- or beginning readers). For one thing, they bought your book, and unless you’ve loaded it up with cartoons and/or photos which appeal to juveniles, they bought it for the written content.

In other words, these folks are intelligent, reasoning human beings. They can draw logical conclusions, follow intricate plots and story lines, and formulate reasonable opinions about the characters, entertainment value, and other elements found in popular books. In short, they don’t need you to lead them by the nose.

  • Your job is NOT to tell them what to think.
  • Your job is NOT to tell them how to react.
  • Your job is NOT to interpret any emotional aspect of the work.

They can and will handle all of this on their own.

Many of us grew up hearing or reading the following line or a variation of it, usually (hopefully) as children: “And the moral of this story is… blah, blah, blah.” In other words, the author of this tale has absolutely no regard for the intellectual ability of his readers. They are so stupid, so insipidly moronic, they can’t even figure out a life lesson from something as stunningly obvious as “don’t be mean,” or “use good manners,” or “don’t poke a hornet’s nest unless you can run faster than at least one of the other idiots in your herd of troglodytes.”

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen this, or something similar, in the work of my students. The good news is, after I’ve roundly chastised them for the transgression, they rarely repeat it. (I hear I’ve been nominated for the “Knuckle-Rapper Award,” a coveted prize won almost exclusively by misanthropic nuns. Hope springs, eh?)

There are other manifestations. Most of them revolve around the narrative slipping into second person. Anytime one hears a narrator admonishing “you,” the locomotive is already off the tracks; the rails are separating and headed for different zip codes, and a tidy mountain of gravel is doubtless being plowed and piled by the runaway train. Please, don’t let it bury you.

Treat your readers as adults, unless you’re not specifically writing for adults. And even then, give them some credit for intellect. People are smarter than you think, despite what those steeped in politics–on both sides of the aisle–wish to tell us, ad nauseam.

As always, use good judgment.




Guest post contributed by Josh Langston. A graduate of Georgia State University with a degree in journalism, Josh’s writing tastes quickly shifted away from reportage. His fiction has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and he currently has two short story collections in the Amazon top 100 for genre fiction.

16 thoughts on “Trust Your Readers

  1. Those stats blew my mind. I just read a book in 3 hours and I’m just now learning 44% of American adults don’t read a book pin a year? As a kid, I was the top book reader in my school. I loved books since I was three. I still do. I actually didn’t believe what I was reading. I spent my entire life thinking everyone could read–even when I knew better (and taught children how to do read and write in some cases). Still, those stats are incredible and important to writers–if not the most important thing. 😳

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Treeshallow Musings and commented:
    Some very good advice. It’s all too easy to over explain things when writing a first (or even second, third or fourth) draft. If in doubt of how clear something is, get a friend who you trust to give honest feedback to take a look.


  3. Something that I see often in poorly written books is writers trying too hard to dictate emotions to the reader i.e “You must be said character X is dead, you must feel attracted to Y, you must…” I’ve come to the belief that the writers job to establish some tensions and stakes, emotive material as it were and allow the reader to make up their own mind.


  4. It’s often fun for me to read comments from my readers when they note bits of foreshadowing and later do a happy dance when they realized they were right. If you are constantly telling instead of showing you lose that.


  5. Great article! And you know, I think this is one of the last lessons we learn as beginning writer: to trust the reader, because in order to do so, we first have to trust our own storitelling skills.

    As a reader, I love when the author leaves enough space for me to figure out things by myself. I know this is dangerous, I know my conclusions may be widely different from what the author have intended, but this is the beauty fo storytelling, the way it enriches ‘us’ as people.
    It’s worth trying 😉


  6. Wise words. I will have to bear these in mind on this re-write; however I am fortunate in having characters who answer back (not just one either)


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