What You Can Learn About Fiction Writing from Ranganathan’s 5 Laws of Library Science
Who is Ranganathan and why would library science teach you anything about writing? Well, Ranganathan is a librarian from India who lived from the 1890s to the 1970s and is considered the father of library science. He is the reason why libraries are the entities you recognize today. You know how libraries have collections to appeal to broad audiences, loan out their book, and have cataloged organization? Yeah, that wasn’t always a thing.
But enough about me nerding out on library history, what does library science have to do about writing? That is, other than existing broadly in the same literary world and other than the fact that we can learn things from one field and apply it to another, no matter how distant sometimes.
Libraries and library science are about serving the readers, the information-seekers, and the library-users.
They know a lot about serving their audience; From libraries, writers can learn how to service their audience too.
First Law: Books are For Use
It may be hard for some of us who grew up in the time where the number of not only books but services that the public library provides for free is proliferating, but what Ranganathan saw in the early 1900s was libraries’ emphasis on preservation and storage — with books even being chained to prevent their removal! — over sharing and accessibility.
This law means that libraries and the books that they hold should not be shut away from users. Books are for use.
Pushing aside anyone who is journaling or otherwise writing exclusively for themselves, when you write you are writing for some potential, future audience. Even that rough, first draft that won’t reach anyone else’s eyes except maybe a critique group… the idea is that the rough draft will evolve to become something to be shared with readers.
Your writing is meant to be read. It is meant to be used by readers. By readers other than yourself.
This means that when you are writing you have to consider your audience. Not in such an overwhelming way that you are chasing fleeting market trends or are rigidly banging your story into the shape of a three-act structure down to the page count. But in such a way that you are caring to make sure what you are writing is accessible, interesting, and understandable to the reader. That you are filling your promises to your reader that you make by the setups and payoffs in the text as well as by what is expected in the broad strokes of your genre.
If you decide you want to write for an audience, you are not writing just for yourself. Books are meant to be used. Writing is meant to be read.
Second Law: Every Reader His/Her Book
In this law Ranaganthan was expressing the value of every individual readers’ taste in books and that libraries should carter to this large and diverse readership without judgment.
In terms of writing, we should take stock of the large world of readers and understand who our potential audiences are and what they want from their reading experience, and how you as the writer can fulfill that.
When you write and edit, there are a lot of questions you should be asking yourself. Are you thinking about your potential future audience in terms of genre expectations and word count/story length? Are you writing for children, teens, or adults? Are you only writing to satisfy your narrative/creative itches and not writing your less favorite stuff (setting, don’t we all overlook setting?) to make it a more fulfilling and well-rounded story for the readers? (This often rears its head as “stories” that are more character sketches or exercises in purple prose than stories.)
Third Law: Every Book Its Reader
Here Ranganathan was prescribing that even books that had a small demographic of readership had a place in the library.
This also means you are not writing for all audiences and you shouldn’t try.
(Crossover hits are unpredictable things that catch the zeitgeist and shouldn’t try to be manufactured. Harry Potter is still a children’s/YA series of fantasy novels and The Fault in Our Stars is still YA novel. They were crossover because they were very good, strong versions of the genres they exemplified and were caught up in the luck of the right market forces.)
However, you are still writing for some audience, even if it is a niche one. The niche just has to be bigger than yourself.
Fourth Law: Save the Time of Reader
While Ranganathan meant for this to be applied to library organization and accessibility, we’re going to look at it from a more Kurt Vonnegut perspective, as he said that stories shouldn’t make readers feel like their time was wasted.
This doesn’t mean you can only write flash fiction or that your epic, Game of Thrones-length fantasy is doomed.
No, this means every story, whether short fiction or Clive Cussler-thick thrillers should only be as long as it needs to be.
Saving the time of the readers means being concise, selective, and powerful with your word choice and sentence structures. It means starting stories and scenes at the best active point rather than too soon and ending the story and scene at the conclusive part rather than dragging it along like a dead weight. It is learning which details need to be included and which can be cut.
Again, this will depend on the genre, the age categories you are writing for, and other factors.
But it’s like recipe blogs… you know the ones where there is a rambling anecdote you can to scroll through to get to the recipe at the bottom. (Found out recently they do that for search engine optimization, not because they necessarily want to write a rambling anecdote.) Don’t let your writing be the rambling anecdote before the recipe.
Fifth Law: The Library Must be a Growing Organism
I bet you think I can’t apply this to writing. Here we go…
The writer is a growing organism and so is the writing world.
As a writer, be open to growing and changing. You don’t want to be static. Learn. Try new things. Experiment with your writing. Even if you only learn that certain style or genre or technique isn’t for you, it is still something learned.
Being part of the writing world, you need to realize the writing world is dynamic, living, and changing too. Not just in the fickleness of the traditional publishing industry or changing trends. But also in changing tastes of readers. Also in writing rules. Name any well-established writing rule of the modern era, such as no head-hopping, and you will be able to find innumerable famous authors and renowned classics that have done that very thing. What we consider ‘good writing’ changes over time as our collective tastes and interests change.
Being a writer and being part of the writing world, nothing is set in stone. It’s art. It’s communication. It’s growing and changing. Be ready to grow and change with it.