Why We Never Want Our Readers to Remember Our Writing
…and what we should do to make an impression instead
If we write for any larger than an audience of one (ourselves) then our obligation as writers is solely to the reader. I mean, the act of writing is pretty exciting for us, but the end result is for the reader, to whom our work serves.
If we serve the readers, why don’t we want them to remember our writing?
Great question — and it’s got everything to do with neuroscience (and a bit to do with enjoyment). When we do our best work as writers, the writing disappears in the background.
Think of good writing as the engine. When we drive a car we enjoy, the experience of driving is what we remember, not the mechanics.
Later, a car nut might find joy in obsessing over the mechanical parts, but that tinkering is using a different part of the brain than the ‘storytelling’ of the drive.
It may be hard to hear, but if we do our job right, the reader won’t notice or remember our writing. We become little more than a lever-puller behind the curtain. When the book is done, we fade into the background, forgotten.
How do we make our mark on the world if we don’t want our readers to remember our writing?
We accomplish this the way writers have accomplished it since the written word was invented — we tell a great story that pulls the reader into the experience. The writing is only the vehicle to get the reader there.
Good writing is recognized and dissected as good, only after the story is told. Once the other writers, teachers, and analytics comb through a story, then it’s distilled down as good writing.
While the reader’s got her hands on our work, the goal should be to try and write as invisible as possible.
When the reader is immersed in the story, her entire brain lights-up. There’s a mental movie playing inside. While this mental movie is rolling, the brain isn’t thinking about the writer’s word choice, whether the dialogue works or not, and if the character’s pants should’ve been blue instead of red.
When we see the story, our brains react similarly to the way we would had we actually experienced it. This is also why virtual reality games are so powerful. When the experience is immersive enough, our minds have a hard time telling the difference between game and reality.
A good story is the ultimate escape
Good story isn’t limited to fiction either. We can experience a voyage on a steamship, a battle, skydiving gone wrong, or a bad day on the trading floor.
When we cut the writing to the bare-minimum required to tell the story, without a word extra — this is the ‘happy place’ where the writing disappears.
Avoid ‘writing’ writing
Writing-writing is the act of trying to come across as a writer. We pick word choices to make us sound sophisticated, even condescending. We over-explain the scene, because it feels good to the writer.
We get self-indulgent in world-building, or our hobby creeps into the story too much (maybe I love stamp collecting, so my main character spends five pages talking about stamps, but nothing else in the story goes into this much detail).
Writing-writing can happen to anyone.
I still do it. I try to catch myself and correct it, but it’s much easier to spot in someone else’s work.
The rule-of-thumb I like to use is I ask myself: What can I remove, while still telling the same story? Having the same dialogue, or describing the same room.
We don’t want to wreck the experience for the reader.
Too much exposition makes the writing lazy. We want the reader to work for the story. ‘She ate an apple’ should suffice. When we talk about the color of the apple, and whether or not the apple has a stem, we steal from the reader.
The apple color or stem does nothing to propel the story forward. So, let’s leave it out.
Let the reader make her own inferences
When we try to explain ourselves too much, the mental ‘story’ disappears. The movie switches-off, the curtain falls, and the house lights flip-on.
If the reader has to think about the writing, he’s no longer using his subconscious mind to build the story. He’s back the surface, checking his phone, eye-balling the bookmark on the table. We’ve lost the battle for attention at that moment.
My to-be-read pile is hundreds of books tall.
I’ve got more bookmarks shoved in books than I can count. And most of these books lost my attention at the moment where the bookmark came out. I may never return to some of those ‘lost boys’ again.
We gain insight when we’re NOT thinking about the problem
When we get reflective about a process we lose the flow.
The same is true for story. Have you ever tried hard to sit down and solve something with a blank sheet of paper? Maybe you went through a pro/con list, or wants/needs. This kind of activity is all conscious-mind thinking — the weaker part of our brain.
Maybe you got discouraged and went for a walk — boom! The idea came from nowhere. This is your subconscious delivering a solution. The SC was working on the problem the whole time, but it needed the detachment to help you out.
When the reader focuses on the writing, she’s not using her subconscious to help engage with the story — you’ve lost her.
Leave your mark without leaving a mark
In the end, when we’ve done our best work, it’s the story that stays with the writer. Most readers don’t talk about an author’s writing unless it gets in the way.
Then we use words like ‘dragging’ and ‘too simplistic.’ These are conscious words.
We don’t want the reader to think about our writing. We want her to be inside the story. I know it sounds a little thankless, but I believe it’s the best way to engage the one person who matters most to your work.
It’s time to hide.
It’s time to be forgotten.
Let’s write the best story we can, using the best parts of our craft. And, in the process, our best work will be ignored. It’s time to tell a great story.
We’re waiting for you.
August Birch (AKA the Book Mechanic) is both a fiction and non-fiction author from Michigan, USA. A self-proclaimed guardian of writers and creators, August teaches indie authors how to write books that sell and how to sell more of those books once they’re written. When he’s not writing or thinking about writing August carries a pocket knife and shaves his head with a safety razor.