Connect with the reader and make your writing flow

Use private notes to track feedback throughout your story

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There is a pattern of writing that is a bit stream-of-consciousness, consisting of one-sentence paragraphs, resulting in a story that feels like a personal journal entry of ideas or experiences. There’s nothing wrong with this style of writing. However, when writers and pub editors ask what they can do to improve their stories and increase the readership, these kinds of stories often come up.

“Flow is something the reader experiences, not the writer,” writes Verlyn Klinkenborg in Several Short Sentences About Writing. Klinkenborg emphasizes the tasks of writing, rewriting, and restructuring a story after the first draft. It can be a tough process, but in the end the reader feels a flow throughout the piece. If you’re about to publish and the whole process has felt smooth, be cautious. What can feel smooth to write is often not smooth to read.

With these stories the presence of the writer is clear. Watch how the reader connects to the piece. Just because the story is published does not guarantee interest. “It’s up to the writer to entice that reader to take an interest in the people and places the writer describes, to understand and care about the ideas or issues the writer tackles, to share some measure of the writer’s fire for [their] subject,” writes Matt Weiland, VP and senior editor at W.W. Norton, in his essay “Marginalia” in the book What Editors Do.

Both writers and editors can benefit from this advice. If you’re a publication editor, this is a crucial way to support contributing writers. We’ve written about peer revisions in the past, and this is another opportunity. Working alongside your peer reviewer, follow these steps:

  1. Keep the reader in mind with your first draft. For writers, it might be helpful to start with an outline to create a clear overall flow of ideas, to guide the reader through the story. Keep the reader in mind as you write. It’s fine to let the ideas flow out as you write. Remember that the way you think and process may not be the best way for readers to receive the story. To get an idea of how readers will receive the story, share it with a peer. If you have an editor, share it with them.
  2. Make peer revision notes in the margins. For editors, Weiland’s advice is to add notes in the margins as you read. How do you feel at each point as you read? Where do you feel curious? Where do you get bored? “Helping a writer form this connection with the reader — that is, to edit a manuscript — means telling the writer as candidly and directly as I can where those bonds are forming and where they are not,” writes Weiland. “Great prose has drive, it sweeps the reader along.” Use private notes to add feedback in the margins of drafts on Medium.
  3. Editors, go with your gut as you read the drafts. You’ve got to feel it. Help the writer know when to slow down, when to speed up, when things get boring, and when things are working. As the writer makes these changes, the story will begin to flow.
  4. Make adjustments based on the feedback. For writers, it might be difficult to see these notes at first. Especially if the original draft flowed smoothly while writing. Give yourself some time from the piece. Some distance can help make the story clearer. When you return, read the piece and take a look at the notes. Make adjustments as needed. These improvements take into account the reader, and what they’re feeling as they move through your story. Your story will connect more deeply.

What have you found to be helpful in connecting with readers throughout your stories? How do you include peer revisions and feedback in your publishing process? We’d love to hear more about what works for you—drop a note in the responses.