The Ideal Reader

I recently finished ON WRITING by Stephen King (one down on the TBR list!) and I highly recommend it to fellow writers. I suspect even non-writers might be intrigued by King’s insights into the insane business of fiction writing.

For anyone who has not read it, the book has two main elements: memoirs of King’s own journey as a writer including the story of his comeback to writing after his horrific accident in 1999, along with practical and entertaining advice on the craft. Both make good reading. His advice on adverbs alone cracked me up:

They’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day..fifty the day after that..and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely and profligately covered with dandelions.

But I’ve been writing long enough that advice like this is not new. What I did find most useful are his ideas on how to deal with reader reaction and critical feedback.

You can’t please all of the readers all of the time; you can’t please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time.

I ought to print this out and tack it up somewhere in my writing space. Just for those moments when my work gets slammed by a reader on Amazon or on an online review site and I forget that for each online bashing I can show at least 10 positive reviews.

The concept that struck me most in ON WRITING is King’s concept of an “ideal reader”. He writes:

I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, “I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?” For me that first reader is my wife, Tabitha.

The Ideal Reader is the personification of your target audience. Someone who enjoys the genre and the type of stories you write, someone who “gets” you at your personal best but is also smart enough to know when you have fallen short.

I don’t think I have a single Ideal Reader. My critique partners are great but none of them love the Regency enough that I would write with them in mind. Failing an Ideal Reader, I’m all too prone to let the wrong people into my head when I’m writing: my mother, the nun who taught me in 1st grade, the random wacko on Amazon, the lady who wrote at length to chastise me about all the “pages and pages of explicit sex” in SAVING LORD VERWOOD (though she did say she forced herself to read the whole thing!). Having an Ideal Reader might help.

What would my Ideal Reader be like? She must love the Regency, relish a nice dollop of historical detail along with the romance, not have rigid expectations about whether she wants a sweet or sensual book, and enjoy reading about flawed characters.

Perhaps I am my own Ideal Reader. Pretending I’m writing just for myself often helps me through rough patches. But it is hard to judge my own work while I’m writing it and taking the time to let a manuscript rest is hard given publishing pressures. Thinking of a reader outside myself might be the better way.

Maybe, when I’m driving myself crazy trying to please too many different readers, I should just think about the Riskies and friends here. I’ll have to try that next time Mrs. Grundy gets in my head!

My fellow writers, what do you think? Do you write with an Ideal Reader in mind? What is she or he like?

For readers, whose Ideal Reader do you think you might be?


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Megan Frampton
14 years ago

Elena, I think I am my own Ideal Reader, too. I did listen to one critic who said my h/h spent too much time apart in ASL, so I am making sure they are together–CONSTANTLY–in my next books. I do listen to others, but I try to let my voice be the deciding factor.

That King book is fantastic.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
14 years ago

I too adore Stephen King’s book as much as I adored his columns in Entertainment Weekly. I think his book is both practical and no-nonsense. I agree with you and Megan, I’m my own ideal reader, although I try and be open to what my critic partners have to say.

Lots of explicit sex? How did I miss this book?

Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

I have one critique partner where we’re something close to mutual Ideal Readers. At least, we usually get what the other is trying to do even when no one else in our group does. I don’t think it would be good for us to be each other’s only CP–it might turn into, “You write wonderful stories!” “No, YOU write wonderful stories!” But sometimes it’s nice to have the one person who gets it to help you when you’re trying to brainstorm why no one ELSE seems to understand.

Cara King
14 years ago

I’ve never read the King book, but I keep hearing great things about it, so I’m sure one day I’ll finally get around to it… 🙂

I suppose my “ideal reader” is a combination of my younger self, my college roommate Heather, and Todd. (We all have rather similar tastes, so it works out pretty well.)


Elena Greene
14 years ago

Lots of explicit sex? How did I miss this book?

That’s what’s funny about this reader’s diatribe. The characters in SAVING LORD VERWOOD insisted on having sex (I told you all, I have no control over that!) But since it was a traditional Regency I tried to keep it subtle rather than anatomical. Though there were a number of sex scenes none of them are that long, even the one in which I realized later the heroine never took off her riding boots. 🙂

But it was apparently enough to get this reader all excited. Looking back I think she enjoyed the whole thing: the sex scenes AND scolding me about them.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

funny about the “pages and pages of sex,” Elena.

Cara, I listened to the King book on audiobooks. I liked the memoir part the best. I have to admit to LIKING adverbs. But I do pause and wonder if I should use them as much as I do.

I have a couple of “ideal” readers (you know who you are) and I think of them when I write. Crit partners aren’t there to please, but to help me make the book better.

Janet Mullany
14 years ago

Stephen King’s book is the only how-to-write one I’ve read all the way through–or at least got pretty close to the end. I really enjoyed his humility–his “do as I say not as I’ve done” approach. You have to love a best seller author who can poke fun at his own work.

I’m my own ideal reader because I try to write the sort of books I want to read.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

I have to admit to LIKING adverbs. But I do pause and wonder if I should use them as much as I do.

I don’t think they’re quite as dreadful as some people believe, either. Georgette Heyer used a ton of them, for one thing. And J.K. Rowling too, especially in the earlier books. If the story is engrossing I don’t notice the adverbs. I still try to minimize them in my own writing as there’s often a better way to achieve the same goal.

Cara King
14 years ago

For me, the debate isn’t adverbs or not (they’re fine by me), but powerful words or not… Adverbs can be time wasters, or they can do a lot of work…same for adjectives.

I’d heard advice to cut adjectives and instead use more powerful nouns…which can be true. But when I started writing movie reviews, and had very little space and a lot I wanted to say in it, I learned that adjectives (and adverbs) properly used can make a sentence tight and full of color and information…especially if you use powerful nouns and verbs as well as powerful adverbs & adjectives…

e.g. instead of

“Johnny Depp plays Sweeney as a man so depressed that he appears to be almost in a coma, a serial killer who can’t even seem to take joy in the many murders he commits”

something like

“Johnny Depp’s near-catatonic Sweeney murders joylessly…”

Much shorter, much denser. (And yes, neither is great writing, but it’s just off the top of my head…)


14 years ago

As a writer, I think my ideal reader is me. I know what I like in a book and what keeps me turning the pages. What I am finding is that it’s not as easy to write a page turner as it is to read one.

14 years ago

I loved Stephen King’s book and I reread it when I feel like I am in a slump. Gee, I wonder if I am anyone’s ideal reader??? 🙂 I write what I like to read so I guess I am my own ideal reader. I do, however, have some non-writing friends who read my WIP and their reactions are very helpful.

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

“You write wonderful stories!” “No, YOU write wonderful stories!”

Well, this sounds like someone who would be MY ideal reader. 🙂 Like most writers, I think I write for myself–I like lots of history, dark but not too outlandishly weird characters, etc. I know what I’m NOT good at writing, so I can’t worry about missing out on those readers. I love that adage, Elena–you can please some of the readers some of the time. My new motto!!!

14 years ago

It’s hard to be someone’s ideal reader, perfection being what it is–or rather, what it isn’t. For instance, I wonder sometimes if my reactions can ever be the same as a typical romance reader’s, since the typical romance reader is female and I am male. On the other hand, when it comes to liking or disliking a book or an author, I find that Cara and I usually do agree; so my reactions can’t be too far off! 🙂

Given that “ideal” is hard to achieve, I think that in reading a writer’s work one should at least try hard to be a helpful reader. No two people’s tastes are completely identical. Cara and I don’t put words together in exactly the same way. So in reading over something she has written, I have to try to separate actual weaknesses from things that are fine, but that I might have phrased differently. It’s harder than one might think!


Elena Greene
14 years ago

But sometimes it’s nice to have the one person who gets it to help you when you’re trying to brainstorm why no one ELSE seems to understand.

Susan, you are lucky! A few times all my CPs advised me to remove something I loved and felt strongly should remain. I had to go into Deep Think Mode to figure out why they didn’t get it and how to fix it. That’s back to being your own Ideal Reader.

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