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SLANT LETTER: My Top Three Rules for Engaging Readers
Writing that Wins Readers Every Time
When I was a kid, I used to stand back from the shelves at our local library and scan for that little blue unicorn on the spines signifying a fantasy read. I loved it all: faeries, dragons, hobbits, centaurs.
I still do. Though I’m convinced that there is perhaps no creature more mythical than the that invisible, enigmatic onlooker whom we know as “the reader.” Every manuscript I edit is studded with hushed references to her: the reader will be cheering you on here, or, the reader may get lost here.
That’s who this whole rodeo of slashing, dashing, and darling-killing is for, right? So who is she? What does she want? And how can your words meet her there?
In our last issue, we talked about for your reader. So today I want to give you a few tactical ideas for engaging your reader right where they are.
I love Stephen King’s advice on this: "Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” So if we’re going to open the door, let’s give your reader a proper greeting. Say hello. Ask for his name. This is no formality; everything you are about to do you do on her behalf. Every sentence and paragraph you rewrite and recast is for his benefit.
In our culture of noise, the greatest gift we have to offer each other is sustained attention [tweet this]. So if a person has chosen to click your link or crack your book’s spine and hear you out, we’d best roll out the red carpet.
We do well as writers to remember that our reader-guests are individuals just like us, each with their own pain points, ambitions, sacred histories, and Spotify private session guilty pleasures. Just like us, their inner lives are informed by a complex cocktail of loyalties and regrets, hopes and bad habits, demographic and psychographic realities, both seen and unseen. But the upshot is this: no one else has lived their own precise prism of life experiences, which colors everything in their view. And this is why we owe them our respect them at word one. Disrespecting and down-talking a reader is one of the quickest ways to assure you lose them for good.
Like any mythical creature, their trust must be earned, and they’re easily spooked. So I propose three simple rules for engagement:
If you cast your reader as mere spectator to your singular experience or intellect, you’ve already lost them. They can sense there’s only room enough for one. But if you include them as participant, well, then you’ve proven you’re in this wild thing together [tweet this].
I have an enduring soft spot for memoirs, and I review many proposals in this genre from year to year. But if I could name the difference between those that capture my interest and those I pass by, it would be this: an author’s inclusive awareness of their readers.
I’m a big believer in writing for personal processing and for catharsis, but this is a medium meant for journals, not for books. The first stays inward, the second unfolds outward; it expands. That’s the difference to me: does the story expand beyond itself into the shared human experience?
Your writing is not meant for sheer showcase, reader as spectator. Rather, it is meant for shared resonance. As writer Rebecca Solnit says, ‘’A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another” [tweet this].
The second rule of engagement builds on the first. Your reader is not only participant, but fellow pilgrim. Any story worth its salt follows the human journey: we all are flawed heroes stumbling down a broken road toward redemption. And I think we’re all eager to compare notes from the trenches. Do we read for any other reason?
So if we’re all in this together after all, merely tolerating someone reading over your shoulder won’t do. Readers are not witnesses in the bleachers to be “wowed” but compatriots in a shared sacred journey, a journey in which we have much to learn from each other [tweet this].
So let’s dignify each other by practicing active hospitality page by page. Let’s get eye-level with our readers: writing not as credentialed pulpit master, but pilgrim to fellow pilgrim.
After sharing the same road for some time, you earn each other’s trust. By now, you and your readers have shared in the grit and the struggle together, you’ve pinpointed the problem at hand, so what now? Tell them what to do about it!
Beyond commiserating, your writing has the power to commission. One of the most potent powers of writing is that ideas have legs. Your words have muscle; they rise up off the page incarnate, word made flesh. Where do you want them to take your readers? You decide [tweet this].
It’s worth noting the chronology here: the invitation precedes the challenge. By all means, provoke your readers and charge them to action, but only after the invitation has earned their attention and trust.
My personal reading policy is to aim for only that which asks something of me. I don’t want to be a passive outsider observer; I want to be invited to step into the story, then challenged and commissioned to live transformed by it. I crave imperative writing, because I need help making the jump from the page to the liturgy of the everyday, and that is how we are transformed.
So keep writing, friends, and let's keep after transformation together.
Until next time,
Take heart. Write on. You got this.
P.P.S. // A Prayer for Writers
SLANT LETTER is for the craft and soul of what you do as a writer. So for each issue, I want to focus on an element of the craft as well as a prayer for all of us anxious, ambitious, internet-exhausted writing folk. I hope this will refresh you as it does for me. Read it, print it, share it, and I hope you find some encouragement here.