When we discuss writing techniques, methods, and storytelling decisions, there is often an underlying conception that there are certain objective standards by which we can judge writing. This time, I want you to imagine instead that you are comparing two stories that are, from a technical perspective, optimized. In less precise terms, they are both ‘good stories,’ perhaps even ‘great stories.’ Inevitably, you will prefer one to the other, and you may even find that you can hardly tolerate one of them, no matter how many other people insist it is fantastic. Similarly, perhaps you love the other, while it seems everyone else dislikes it. The point of this thought experiment is to start thinking about audience.
For whom you are writing matters, and whether your story is enjoyed or not will depend almost as much upon who is reading it as on what you put into writing it. In that sense, it can be almost as important for an author to find their audience as it is for the author to write an excellent story, since the best story might never see the light of day if it is delivered to the wrong audience. Every story must find its niche, and it is in part an author’s job to find that niche. However, there are decisions within a story that an author can make that will affect the audience that will enjoy it, and the author would do well to keep these in mind.
I’ve had reason to contemplate this recently, first in the context of books my brother would like to write (on history and philosophy) that would appeal to a relatively small audience, and then in the context of the story I wrote for December’s Elegant Literature contest. In truth, the reckoning, if you can call it something so dramatic, was brewing for some time, though I was reluctant to face it. To put it baldly, I’ve received a lot of feedback that my writing is too hard to read. Not in terms of the storytelling, but in the specific decisions I make on sentence structure and word choice.
It’s not intentional, most of the time. I just, as we have established previously, like words. That the English language has wonderful words which I can pluck down to so specifically describe something is exciting to me, and I enjoy finding just the right word or phrase to employ. That is not in and of itself a problem, but when it distracts readers it can become one. I might not think twice about the words I use, but some of them are, shall we say, unusual, and they can become speed bumps or distractions for readers. The school of transparent prose, and arguments for clarity of writing in general, would argue that I should cut such words in favor of simpler ones, even if it ends up taking me more words to express the same sentiment (like, for instance, Word’s editor function that always tells me I should be attempting to constrain all of my writing to an eighth-grade level).
At what point does the line between artistic choice/authororial voice and clarity lie? As my wife is fond of telling me, she doesn’t want to read books these days that force her to look up words. But surely there is also an audience that would appreciate such writing. As with so many things, I suspect that the answer involves compromise. When I do revisions, I will have to examine my word choice with the thought in mind not only of what word might best suit the situation, but also what word would best communicate the desired sentiment to my target audience. Each writer must find what works for themselves, but getting feedback from readers helps. It’s a balance, and one that I will be developing in future stories. That, and finding an audience for books that employ words like ‘oriflamme.’