Tip of the Week June 22

Tip of the Week: Do not assume your readers know as much about your topic as you do.

Now, I know what you’re saying. I promised you a good tip of the week, and I tell you something so obvious you don’t feel like this was worth the time it took you to type in the blog address. Just bear with me. There’s more to this simple tip than you may think.

Naturally, the tip applies to both fiction and non-fiction books that tackle a particular subject like hockey. Now, you may love hockey and think it’s the greatest sport in the world. All your friends love hockey. You can’t think of a single person in the world who doesn’t know what a slapshot is. Well, I don’t. I live in Texas where, Dallas Stars notwithstanding, hockey is not a big event. We worship football here in the Lone Star State. So, I don’t know a lot of hockey jargon. Most of the kids I know don’t know a lot of hockey jargon. If your book uses jargon without defining it, many of your readers might not be able to follow that pivotal hockey game where your character realizes she loves the ballet-dancing boy not the jock she felt was socially more acceptable. By the same token, if you had too many plies and posses, the readers who understood the hockey might not understand the ballet section of your book. Although you happen to be an expert in both fields, no else might be. You don’t want your readers (or your editor) throwing the book down in disgust because they cannot figure out what is going on.

That was the obvious interpretation of my tip, but it applies to more than just jargon and acronyms and other areas of specialized knowledge. It also applies to genres. All genres have similar attributes within themselves. Mysteries have red herrings. High Fantasies (think dragons and swords) have mentors. Most readers who pick up a book in a specific genre have expectations that the author has to meet or deliberately break. And authors in these genres often write for readers already acquainted with the particular conventions of their genre. And for the most part, a majority of their readers are familiar. But what about the reader who isn’t? At one time or another, every one has been new to a genre. Even if you’ve now read every fantasy book ever written, at one point you had to have picked up your first one. And in that first one you probably didn’t realize the green-eyed character was the villain until they did something villainous. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. Remember to write for all potential readers.

(Oh, and I’m tired right now, so I can’t remember if green eyes means you’re the hero or the villain in a fantasy. Feel free to correct me if I got it wrong.)


sally apokedak said...

Hmm. I love fantasy but I've never heard of eye color meaning anything in the genre. Very interesting.

The Buried Editor said...

You'd be surprised the random stuff things can mean in fantasy. Diana Wynne Jones has this great tongue in cheek book, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, that's similiar to the Rough Guide series of tourist books. I think this is actually where I discovered the green eye thing. It's a brilliant book.

Anonymous said...

On the fantasy topic, is it true that in general only avid readers read fantasy? This is something I heard regarding middle grade readers.

The Buried Editor said...

You know, I have no idea about the avid reader thing. I've always studied fantasy from an academic perspective -- finding subversive material in otherwise unobjectionable text, analyzing using various people's definitions and standards for the genre, etc. All the fun stuff grad lit students do. I've never looked at it from the avid vs reluctant reader perspective. Supposedly Harry Potter has been instrumental in converting reluctants to avids. Series of Unfortunate Events is apparently another. It's quasi-fantastic. It's an interesting question. Does anyone know of any research done on the topic?