March 7, 2013

Like Nobody's Reading

I read a quote the other day.  It was probably on Pinterest - most quotes are - and I have not the least idea who said it.  (Which is good, because I'm going to disagree with it, and I hate disagreeing with famous people.)  I can't locate the quote now, but in essence it said
write like nobody's reading.
I thought, when I came across it, that is sounded good and pithy and like something we need to hear.  Most of us have had times where we get ourselves into a bind wondering if what we write will be appreciated. I know I've had panicked moments when I think, "What if people think I hate cats because Regina dislikes them?  What if they think I don't like to read because Tip doesn't?  What if people misunderstand these characters' relationships?  What if they twist my words and come out with something horrible?"  The questions range from the petty to the dire, and if allowed to grow, they could quickly become overwhelming.  In one sense, therefore, this "Write like nobody's reading" quote has a point.

But I believe there is another side to the coin, a side I had not particularly noted until reading Dorothy Sayers' book on the Trinity and the creative mind, The Mind of the Maker.  (I wrote something of a synopsis for this after I finished it back in September.)  In her work she draws a parallel between the economy of the Godhead and the economy of the mind of creative man - a reasonable object, seeing as we are made in the Image of God.  The first two "persons" of this imagining, creating mind are simplest to see and to explain; they are the Idea, that thing that exists in our heads before ever we begin to write, and the Energy or Activity, where the Idea is translated into something understandable to others.  But of course the third is rather more elusive, which to me makes Sayers' parallel more credible.

The third "person" deals, in essence, with the power that brings about proper communication and appreciation in the mind of the reader.  It is that thing which conveys the spirit of the Idea as expressed in the Activity.  It is that thing which, when present, creates the vital connection between the reader and the writer through the book.  And it is absolutely necessary.

In her book - which I continue to recommend for all writers - Sayers generally uses the example of a playwright, being one herself (as well as a novelist and an essayist, but that's beside the point).  It is critical, she writes, that when a man is penning his play, he keep in mind the perspective of the audience.  What is the audience going to understand by this wordplay?  How are these props going to appear?  Will the scene be conveyed?  She uses a humorous example of a play that failed to do just this; instead, the writer (who really should have been a novelist instead) substituted a long passage of "stage directions" - those sections in italics at the start of a scene in a Dover Thrift edition of Shakespeare.  Thunder.  Darkness.  Woman in bed, tossing and turning as if in pain.  Woman cries out, twisting sheets in hands.  End of Scene I.

This is an exaggeration, and yet it is an exaggeration that applies to all creative fields: whether you are writing a novel or a play, a failure to figuratively place oneself in the viewer's chair will result in a terrible disconnect.  At the heart of the matter, the fact is that mature writers, the ones not just starting out (and that is an important caveat), must write as though someone is reading.  Because isn't that the very thing we desire?
he that uses his words loosely and unsteadily will either not be minded or not understood.
- john locke, an essay concerning human understanding

We want to be minded.  We want to be understood.  And in order to do so, we have to be able to have minds in two positions at once: that of the writer, designing and creating; and that of the reader, following and learning.   That is why, while we cannot allow worries about what others will think to paralyze us, we also cannot ignore them.  They have their place in helping us to convey our story, and the vital spirit of that story.


  1. You are right. I still like the original quote for kicking myself out of a state of perfectionism, but it is not a complete thought. I will say it again: As soon as I can afford it, I'm buying Sayers' book and READING it. You and Jenny torture me with all these lessons learned from her that I haven't delved into yet! ;)

    1. As a motivational quote it really isn't all that bad - it's just that I don't think the person thought through the implications. (And the thing about Pinterest is that as long as the quote is pithy, people repin it without a second thought!)

      Everyone should read this particular work of Sayers'. I picked my copy up at a book sale, but I think you can get it for only 99 cents on, my usual go-to book-buying site.

  2. Thanks for this post, Abigail! I was planning on doing a post like this on my blog as well. You put everything perfectly and have given me inspiration as well :)

    1. I'm sorry I stole your thunder! But I am glad you found the post helpful, all the same. I found Sayers' section on this "third person," the communicating power, extremely insightful as I went about the process of editing my novels. It just seemed to fit, to get beneath the small details to the heart of the matter. It doesn't tell us how to write and edit, but it does show to what end we write and edit. Again, highly recommended!

    2. Haha, no problem! I wouldn't be doing it for a while still, anyways. You brought things to my attention that I hadn't thought much about before. You have such an insight into the writer's world, and that's fantastic. I will definitely look into Sayers' novel.

    3. Hi Abigail - well, the time for my own post on this matter has come about sooner than I anticipated. I was wondering what you would think me of including a link in my post to this particular entry on your blog? I take a bit of a different approach than you do, revolving more around the issues of the first part of your blog post than the second, and I think it would be great for others to be able read another person's perspective on this matter coming from a different angle. I understand if you'd rather me not share, but I thought I'd ask. :)

    4. Oh, no, just the contrary: I'd be honored for you to incorporate this into your own post! I like the idea of incorporating the different angles. I'm interested to read your take on the topic, too - so do go right ahead!

    5. Thanks so much! I'll probably be posting the entry tomorrow :)

  3. I thoroughly agree, Abigail: sometimes we are so taken up in our own words and our own thoughts and ideas that we forget how our normal readers will read and enjoy what we write. This came home to me especially last week when I asked my sister, Mary, to review a Snippets of Story post I wanted to post on my blog before I posted it and to pick out the best snippets I would share from my story. Her thoughts, encouraging though they were, gave me a new perspective on what normal readers really like and enjoy in a novel they read. It is important not to let our worry about 'those who'll read the tale' cloud our judgement and make us afraid to write, but I believe we often get so caught up in the world of 'writers' and the 'greats' and in trying to be so heart-wrenchingly poetic and deep, that we forget our audience love the simple and beautiful things too :D.

    A great post, Abigail! I love how your post complimented Jenny's post 'The Agony and Ecstasy' taking the other side of the coin. Both points are so important, aren't they! Hmm, and like Rachel said, I really must try and get my hands on Sayers' book... but right now the main hindrance is I need to save up for it!

    1. The simplicity of one's own writing voice is sadly underrated! As you say, we can get so wrapped up in the self-help books that tell us to be original and not use cliches and think outside the box, that we actually jar readers with high-flown language. I know there was one section in Tempus Regina where I struggled to think of a phrase to use in place of "black as pitch." And when my father read the section, his comment was, "I think this phrase should be 'black as pitch.'" Fail!

      We want to better our craft; we want to write well - and those are both good aims. But as important as good writing is, we've got to make sure we are not actually obscuring the story.


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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