Famous Last Words: Always Think of Your Reader

I watched Charles Osgood interview Welsh author Ken Follett on PBS the other day. A world-renowned writer once asked Follett if he thought about the reader when he was writing. Follett said he thought about the reader all the time. Constantly.

In response, the famous author said, “I never think of the reader. I always write for myself.”

“That’s why you are a very great author,” Follett said. “And why I’m a very rich author.”

I keep seeing prose by writers, authors, business folks and academics that write for themselves and not their readers.

So, once again, I have restarted work on the manuscript of a book that’s been languishing in my computer for several years: “WRITE IT RIGHT: What Authors Can Learn From the Great Copywriters.”

A Huge Disappointment
Back in the summer of 2008, I came across a review in
The Wall Street Journal of “Tupperware Unsealed: Brownie Wise, Earl Tupper, and the Home Party Pioneers.”

I was intensely interested. Here was the genesis of a revolutionary marketing technique—the Tupperware party, where (mostly) women would get together in a home and a sales rep would demonstrate plastic food containers, take orders and give the hostess a commission or thank-you gift. Who dreamed it up? What were the thought processes, the trials and the errors that went into the final business model that became a sensation?

I eagerly dug into the review by Mark Lasswell, deputy books editor of the WSJ, and quickly discovered that he boiled the contents of the book down to 1,057 words, telling the reader the entire story from beginning to the very sad ending. I knew exactly what was in the book and no longer had any reason to buy it. Lasswell had screwed me out of a reading experience, screwed the author out a royalty payment and screwed the publisher—University Press of Florida—out of a sale. This was the classic lazy man’s way to fill a newspaper column—take somebody else’s stuff, retell it, add nothing to the mix and feel immensely pleased that he’s done a good day’s work.

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Comments
  • Ben Gay III

    As always, great stuff, Denny! I always look forward to your articles.
    Note: These sentences are eights words or less!
    All the best!
    Ben Gay III
    The Closers
    http://WWW.BFG3.COM

  • Scott M

    Mr. Hatch:

    Thank you for your column today. I must admit I’m a fan of your philosophies, and you hit on not one but two that I hold dear: Think of your reader as you write or edit, and keep sentences short and palatable.

    I was fortunate enough to have two mentors at different stages of my editing and writing career that impressed these basic premises upon me. One was Walter Doty, former editor of Sunset magazine, instrumental in making it become the "Magazine of Western Living." He impressed upon us then-young writers to "Walk in the Reader’s Shoes." It is so simple yet so accurate. Another of his gems was "Don’t be a jesuit, be a conduit." In other words, job one is to supply information, not preach to the reader.

    My second mentor was part of my life when I served as editor and writer of gardening and home-improvement guides. His name was BIll Fisher, who founded HPBooks with his wife Helen. This publishing company was based in Tucson, and it’s biggest claim to fame was publishing a book entitled Crockery Cookery. It was published at a time when no recipe or cookbooks on the subject existed. It sold more than two million copies ( I can’t remember the exact number). It launched the company and allowed it the financial means to produce entire lines of books on various how-to topics. Mr. Fisher read every galley proof of every book prior to it being published. You had better be on your editing toes when you passed your book onto him. He was ruthlessly good as an copyeditor, and commanded that sentences be no more than 12 words in length. And no semi-colons, mind you! It was our job to write and edit to an eighth grade reading level.

    Please keep up the columns that provide excellent lessons for today’s creatives. I think they need reminding of the basics that have worked and will continue to work, if only we pay attention to the person reading our words.

    Scott Millard

  • Susan

    Thanks Denny! Totally agree on short words/short sentences for marketing and certain types of books. We marketers are breaking into people’s lives trying to sell them something so we need to be thoughtful and gracious to them and make their experience as easy as possible. Short is good for them, good for us. However, there are other parts of life, and other types of writing, where stretching the mind is a challenging pleasure and a goal for many. Some long words have shades of mean that are simply missing in the short alternative words. And some complex thoughts can be best communicated in complex sentences. I just can’t imagine Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope or Leo Tolstoy writing the Rudolph Flesch way — what a loss to the world of great literature. So…short in its place, long in its place (and clarity always).

  • Marc

    Great stuff Denny! I’ll preorder your book…heck, I’ll preorder 10 copies if that’s what it takes to get it off your computer and into my hands! I want MORE!