Today’s topic is a bit of an interesting one. I say this because it’s one of those topics you don’t often hear about. In fact, it’s one of those topics that, depending on your writing education, you may have never had. In my experience, if it comes at all it only comes very late in your creative writing education—like say 300-level classes or higher. And even then, at least in my experience, it’s not exactly something that’s deeply discussed, but rather referenced, maybe spoken of once or twice, and generally with a sort of “you’ll figure that out” air to it.
Why? Well, it’s not exactly hard to see. A writing education is mostly concerned with educating its students to reach the highest pinnacle of writing talent and knowledge available to them. And today’s topic really doesn’t fit into that, since it’s less about reaching the highest pinnacle and more about knowing when not to shoot for the highest peak. Additionally, it’s not hard to imagine that if one started telling young writers about this concept early on, writing programs might run afoul of some of the same problems that art programs face, in which that there is always the stereotypical student who, because of an interest in cartoons, has no interest in learning proper shading and technique.
That said, maybe it’s unwise to bring this up, but I’m trusting you guys to handle it. Like many art teachers would say about cartoons, sure, you can make a great living at them. But it’s important to know all the techniques and rules anyway—so you can use them in their proper place. And the same applies to today’s topic. What I’m about to bring up isn’t a free ticket to stop building your writer’s toolbox or to ignore further writing education. It’s a bit like that old saying that it takes a good actor to play a bad one.
Today, we’re going to talk about writing for reader comprehension.
So, to start with, what do I mean when I say the words “reader comprehension?” It’s a bit of a blanket statement, really. I’m not just referring to word choice and whether or not your audience understands the word “mitochondrian,” though this is indeed part of it (I speak from experience). I’m also referring to the complexity of the work itself and how you frame it to the reader. This framing, along with the word choice, will help determine your audience.
Let me offer an example. How many of you have read a book where the author feels the need to explain everything going on to the reader? I’ve certainly experienced this. In fact, I gave up reading one author after their newer books, over time, sunk deeply into this mire. Roughly once per chapter this author would devote at least a page, sometimes more, to the art of summarizing and explaining the character motivations to the reader. Like clockwork.
And I hated it. It felt—to me—completely unnecessary. In fact, the last book of that author’s I read, I found myself groaning at each successive occurrence, eventually skipping pages outright as I complained aloud “Yes, I already get this. I understand that they want to save this child because their own childhood was rough and now they’re projecting it onto this kid as a penance. I get that if they act to out of line the villains will catch on, so they need to be careful. I already figured out that out, and you’ve ruined any sense of drama by confirming … GAH!” And I went through this with every chapter.
Now, the opposing entry, in which I’ll make myself an example, because that’s the style I like to write in. My works rarely sit down and summarize things for the reader. I don’t like to do that. I like to make the reader think. I like to leave the reader the puzzles. I strongly dislike stepping out of the character’s viewpoint to summarize or point out something solely for the reader, and I rarely have the characters themselves summarize thus unless I feel that the character would and that it’s is ultimately needed. Crud, I won’t even do what some authors do and point out to the reader when the characters are acting on or espousing incorrect information. I don’t even summarize mysteries, in some cases, with an explanation that the mystery even exists. I expect the reader to sit back, think, and figure it out.
Here’s the thing: Both are valid ways to tell a story, and both “styles” are something that you, as an author, will have to decide on for each of your works. Because each one of these methods—or some measure of a scale somewhere in between—will both win and lose you an audience.
This is what I mean by reader comprehension: Each one of your readers is going to come into your work with a certain amount of expectations, including expectations about how much effort and energy they’re expected to put into your work in order to get the most out of it. And different audiences are going to have different levels of expectations in this regard. Some aren’t going to want to be asked to think about the story you’re presenting. They don’t want to be left with questions, or be required to remember details from earlier. They don’t want to be expected to realize that there’s a question and then ask it. They want the story to do that for them. They’re going to want to have everything handed to them on a silver platter. Others however, will find that off-putting and will be non-plussed by the narrative or the characters constantly repeating or summarizing what they’ve already figured out. Some readers will find long, complex words and highly technical explanations off-putting, while others will enjoy that to an insane degree.
So, with this in mind, writing your works can become a little trickier, because if you’re writing to a specific audience of readers, you need to write to their preferred comprehension level. Note the term preferred. I’m not saying that if a reader doesn’t enjoy complex stories that don’t hand them everything they’re not intelligent, but that this is merely the type of story they prefer (though if such a reader begins mocking a good story solely based on their inability or refusal to comprehend it, that’s a different kettle of fish). Some people read for relaxation and don’t want to have to figure out every detail of the plot. There’s nothing wrong with this. They know what they want to read.
So, again, as you sit down to embark on the creation of your new story, you’ll need to make some decisions regarding what sort of reader comprehension level and audience you’re going to be writing your story for. You can’t change this halfway through. This decision needs to be made before you begin writing out your story, because it will infuse the entire work. You need to determine not only things like word choice and maturity level (which are generally acknowledged as the keystones of picking an audience) but also exactly how much “effort” you want your reader to expend.
Especially if your goal is to be published with one of the big publishing houses, this decision is going to have a serious impact on your drafts. If you want to write, for example, Young Adult fiction and be published with one of the big houses, comprehension is going to be something you’re going to need to consider. Even if your amazing story is written with what that house would consider appropriate diction with regards to content, word choice, and subject matter, a story that still requires heavy reading comprehension from the reader contrary to the publishers expectations probably won’t be getting a contract. And ergo, that will leave you hanging with a manuscript that only a select group are ever going to read.
Let’s be honest, there’s a degree of “write what will sell” to every author who wants to make a buck at writing, unless you’re one of those writers(?) who can somehow survive on government grants and stipends based on your “cultural contributions.” You need to know your audience and what they expect, and you’re going to need to write what they want to read if you want to keep writing (and eating, for that matter).
Now, if you’ve already found your audience, or are expanding one, that’s fine. But even then, you’ll need to keep this concept in mind. If your audience is used to stories with a low degree of required comprehension, with explanations and summaries they can dig their teeth into, and then you drop a new book on them without warning that gives them little to no explanations at all and instead simply assumes they’ll figure it out, well, you’re going to lose a lot of readers for that work, or perhaps suffer a review backlash. There are those that will enjoy your work enough to continue regardless, but there will be those who will feel off-put by the change.
Does this mean you shouldn’t change? No, not at all, although a change like this can be one of the reasons an established author will start publishing under a pseudonym. If I can stress something here it’s that unless you’re operating under a pre-existing requirement, there isn’t a known requirement for this determination past “will people read it.” If you write a story that requires quite a bit of reader involvement, you will always be able to find readers. Likewise for a story that doesn’t. Even inside a more confined list of requirements, such as the YA genre (which tends to be more inclined towards summarizing things for the reader) you can still find works which expect a higher level of involvement.
So why worry about this then? Why think about it at all? Because, like any other part of writing, it’s a fact of each and every book that you pick up that they will require some level of reader comprehension, and your book will be no exception. Your book, your stories, each of them will require a level of engagement on the part of the reader, and this engagement should be something that you are aware of. You want to write your story to whatever level of engagement you want it to contain, but you also want to make sure that it’s consistent with that level of engagement too.
Now, easier said than done, right? Well, in this case, and in my experience, actually, this isn’t as hard as it sounds. Yes, there will be stylistic differences between the various levels of comprehension you ask your reader to put forth, and certain narrative styles might lend themselves more willingly to one style or another (for example, third person limited can very easily lend itself to requiring a high level of comprehension, while first person omniscient can be very helpful for explaining things as they arrive). But in the end? All this really requires is a bit of consistency on your part and a willingness to look at the story as a reader to make certain that you’re not being too difficult to follow.
That’s it. If you read through this today and started to panic, stop. Grab your towel and don’t panic. While I know I’ve made a big deal out of pointing this out, the truth of the matter is that until you’re experienced enough to start picking this out and recognizing it in your own work, all you really should be worrying about is making sure that you’re consistent. As I said, there’s an audience for both these types of stories. If you’re worried about what your story’s is, don’t be. Just focus on keeping your consistency up, making sure that whatever you are asking of your reader, it’s staying at the same level rather than swinging wildly all over the place. Then, as you start to recognize what you do that makes this consistency happen, you can start thinking more about what you would change, and perhaps how, in order to change what your readers experience.
Again, there is no wrong level of comprehension, not without diving into ridiculous territory. Stories that sum things up frequently sell just as well (honestly, I think they do quite a bit better most of the time, but I’m not positive on that) as stories that expect the reader to keep the pieces collected themselves (or even recognize them in the first place). In the end, this comes down to reader opinion. So why do we care then? Because understanding our writing—what we’re delivering and who to—is part of the writing process. Even if your readers never consciously identify what it is about your story that they like, your knowledge of what it is can help you continue to deliver more of it. Additionally, as your reader base grows and you consider branching out, understanding reader comprehension can ease some of the burdens of trying for new genres or appealing to old and new readers alike.
So, don’t panic. Keep a hold of that towel. And get out there and write. If you’re just getting started, work on the consistency of what you ask of your reader and go from there. Pay attention to comprehension levels in the books you read, and spread your reading out so you can see the differences in the different requirements. How does something like Redwall compare to The Lord of the Rings? Harry Potter to The Wheel of Time? A Mote in God’s Eye to Star Trek? What does The Lost World expect you to reason out on your own or understand versus something like Dinotopia?
And if you’ve been writing for a while, look back at your own works and ask yourself “What have I asked of my readers?” Look over your stories, your drafts, and look at what expectations you’ve had of your readers. Has it helped? Has one story succeeded where another floundered with the same audience, and is it related to the level of comprehensive thought you asked of them? Maybe you’ll find something unexpected.
At the end of the day, understanding how much comprehension you’re asking of your readers is important to your success as an author. It’s important that we understand where our writing lies on the scale of “give everything” to “think about everything” and then write accordingly. Neither is bad. Writing the wrong one to the wrong audience can be bad, as when the author I mentioned above gradually moved into “explain everything” and ultimately turned me away. So we should work to understand and comprehend what we’re asking of our readers, and making reader comprehension a tool in our toolbox, even if it’s a subtle one more akin to fine or rough sandpaper that shapes the story, or perhaps a drafting pen that influences the framework from the get go.
But in the end, it’s a tool like any other, a tool that will help shape our story into the one our audience will enjoy. Be that story smooth and full of summation, or rough with hard edges that keep the reader thinking, constantly asking their own questions. Both are good, both are fun, and both are something that you can write.
Now you just need to go out and do it.
Questions? Comments? On this topic I can see them being fairly widespread. Post below!