How To Write So That People Will Read

Writing is doing basic emotional labor for the reader. Readers want kindness and thoughtfulness and civility.

Literary fiction is a tacit agreement that the reader will do a lot of emotional work in exchange for a dense thought structure, and sometimes obscure or symbolized meaning. Most readers either don’t have the resources or the emotional skill set to seek that lopsided arrangement out. Many readers who would read literary fiction don’t have the time anymore to think about what they read. They can’t afford to invest the emotional labor of reading dense literature.

When it comes down to emotional labor in writing, readers don’t really care about spelling or grammar. Just as a poorly dressed or groomed person, or a person with colloquial speech, can glow with kindness and thoughtfulness, and be loved and enjoyed by strangers, so a book with spelling mistakes and clunky or repetitive sentences can be genuinely loved when that book performs some kind of emotional labor for the readers.

An author of fantasy does the emotional labor of making a difference place to be and describing it, and putting enough stress and excitement into the story to make the reader forget their everyday life. Science fiction does the emotional labor of juxtaposing new ideas and technology in ways that stretch the reader’s mind, and makes the reader feel as though they know something that most people don’t know. Biographies do the emotional labor of introduction; really good introductions are done by people who know how to draw out the individual being introduced, so that the reader feels throughout the book as though they really met the subject of the biography.

A lot of how-to books aren’t actually read for the information in them so much as the reader wants the feeling of someone spending time with them on something embarrassing or distressing to them. The reader wants a friend, and they want a mentor, and they want a parent/sibling figure who will say encouraging things. The reader is buying an inexpensive relationship placebo.

Romances are of two broad types; the kind that do the emotional labor of waking up a person’s sexuality and getting their juices going, and the kind that are just a generalized string of sexually provocative images and situations. Some romances have no actual sex, or very little sex, but a lot of time is spent on the details about a developing relationship, and others are really just bare excuses put around a lot of sex scenes–like musicals from the 1940’s, when the plot is little more than a basic frame for a lot of singing and dancing.

When you understand why people buy and read books, it is not so scary to write books. Everyone (human) does emotional labor. Everyone (who is not a sociopath or narcissist) is good at some kind of emotional labor. Everyone (who is real) has the capacity, emotionally, to entertain and divert readers.

When you see writing as an emotional labor service instead of as an intellectual or creative act, it becomes much simpler and much more straightforward for you to plan out and execute your writing.

All you have is yourself and time.

Writing should be easy. Writing should be enjoyable. Writing (right now) is neither easy nor enjoyable for you because you’ve been sold a rotten bag of goods.

People told you in school that you had to write a certain way, but take a minute to think about the people who told you this. I know that my high school English teacher, and my junior high and middle school English teachers (to say nothing of my *gasp* university professors), were competent teachers, in that they were good at classroom discipline and they gave us things to do that made us more aware of other human beings. But when I look at what they actually taught us in terms of what good writing was, I can’t say that they knew, practically, what they were doing. None of them were authors (I don’t count academic papers as novels, sorry). None of them had ever published a book, or written a lot of short stories, or even written competent instructions that other people could easily follow. (Unfortunate, but true.)

So, grammar and usage and style and literature-reading skills aside, taking their advice about how to write is probably not the best choice.

If you want to write books, you might want to stop listening to everyone’s ideas about how to write books, because honestly, most people either don’t know what they’re talking about because they actually don’t write, or they have a vested interest in whatever thing they’re telling you to do. And in the second case, they are not being honest with you about how they actually get their writing done.

Find me an author who boasts publicly about how many drafts they do, and I will find you an author who is either exaggerating or, well, exaggerating.

Whatever people say, what they do is usually two drafts. They write, and then they go through and make their writing not embarrassing. When you hear people boasting about doing sixteen drafts, or loudly and ostentatiously complaining in advance about how much work they have left on their book, you are hearing a person who is counting every major whole-manuscript-several-days-or-weeks-screen-sit session as a draft.

You are hearing draft, and you are thinking, “Wow, every single draft must be like a whole new version of the story! That is hard work!” What you don’t realize is that an actual revision process is usually tinker-y. I might go through five drafts of a project, but one draft is the original writing, the second draft is me cleaning up obvious mistakes, or capitalizing names, the third draft is me changing a person’s name and cutting and changing two scenes, the fourth draft is me realizing that the original is better and putting the material back mostly the way it was in the first place, and the fifth draft is a detailed screening for grammar and awkward sentences. The project is five drafts, because I end up with five separate saved documents (the original, v.2, v.3, etc.), and I have technically gone through the writing five times, but I have not done what the layperson envisions when the layperson hears “drafts”.

You do not have to make yourself do drafts. Doing a lot of drafts and rewrites almost always destroys whatever original spark made your writing worth reading in the first place. Remember, readers are reading primarily to get emotional labor from the author; if the author has carefully combed all mistakes, all individual sentences and incorrect phrasing and unique ideas out of the writing so that it looks “professional,” then the reader is not going to get much of what they are really looking for out of the book. The first thing that goes in the editing process is exactly the kind of emotional labor that the reader is looking for in the first place.