See if you can immediately write down your goal as a writer. It might be that you want to make a lot of money from writing; perhaps you want to write a best-seller which will enable you to retire; or maybe you have just always had a novel ‘inside you’ waiting to burst out.
Or, if you’re a student, you may have a more immediate goal - perhaps you want to pass an exam or get the best grade you possibly can for a particular piece of work.
There’s nothing really wrong with any of these goals. The only thing is that in all of them there really isn’t any mention of that guiding light which should be a core principle: the reader.
Whether you want to make money, achieve fame, accomplish closure on a creative work or get a better grade, there is one ingredient you can’t afford to ignore - in fact, it’s the key ingredient on which all else depends: what your readers want and expect.
This could be summed up in one word: rewards.
Any reader who has devoted a certain amount of time and attention to a work, whether it is a novel, a script, a poem or an essay, would like to receive some form of exchange for that time and effort. It might be an emotional thrill, a sensuous experience, a remarkable insight or a renewed faith - it might be any number of things or any combination of them. Without necessarily being too specific, a writer can deliver four different levels of reward:
1. A worse-than-zero reward: the reader walks away in disgust, perhaps even appalled or shocked or annoyed because the work has seriously let them down. A 1,000 page thriller has left them underwhelmed; a 1,000 word essay has confused and irritated them; a short story has revealed the ineptitudes of its author to such a degree that the reader can scarcely think of anything else. This could be called a crime - obtaining such effort from the reader and giving worse than nothing in exchange. It will be rejected, it will receive a low grade, no one will pay for it. Key element: it required considerable effort on the part of the reader to get through it.
2. A partial reward: the reader is impressed by certain points in the essay or story, but these points are overshadowed by errors or an incomprehensible argument; the book finishes disappointingly and leaves one frustrated, when there was so much promise at the beginning; the twist in the tale was unconvincing and therefore spoiled the set-up. This level of reward is perhaps best summed up by the word disappointment. It will also be rejected. Key element: it required an effort to overlook flaws on the part of the reader.
3. A fair reward: for the amount of time put in, the reader is satisfied. The novel leaves the reader contented, if not thrilled; the essay answers the question and is well-presented if not insightful; the short story has the same kind of plot as many others but it’s quite well done. The average writer can usually achieve this level, and it’s the level that most writing manages on a regular basis. The work could well be accepted or score an acceptable grade. Key element: it required very little effort on the part of the reader to finish the piece.
4. A superlative reward: the reader is moved. The thriller is perhaps the best read for years and leaves thoughts and images buzzing in the reader’s mind; the essay has opened the reader’s eyes to aspects of the topic never previously considered, and done so in a perfectly ordered and acceptable, perhaps even beautiful, way; the poem has taken the reader to new heights of spiritual experience. This level of writing is what all writers are striving for, whether they can name it or not. It’s the level of all great literature; it’s probably the reason why you’re reading this. It is what publishers and editors are looking for - though they can fail to recognise it! Key element: it required no effort on the part of the reader and actually gave energy/insight.
All writers should strive to give readers superlative rewards for reading their material and to reduce reader effort.
Only by setting the standard that high can we hope to progress upwards and make all our efforts worthwhile. If we can achieve this level of rewards for our readers, all else follows: money, fame, creative satisfaction, better grades. Put this at the top of your goals as a writer and you won’t really go wrong because you’ll be interested and keen to apply everything you’re taught that leads you in the right direction.
You will have made the reader your centre of attention again.
How do you provide these rewards? You have to learn about capturing interest within your opening few sentences; you have to discover the tried-and-tested techniques for motivating readers to read on; you have to grasp the importance of getting an emotional commitment from your readers, and much more. And you have to use vacuum power - that magic ingredient in all writing which reduces reader effort to zero. But the aim of it all is to ensure that the reader gets more than he or she expected.
Then you’re guaranteed success as a writer.