Thursday, March 11, 2010

Imaginary Reader

Imaginary agents, never let you down, when all the others turn you away they’re around.

Imaginary readers never disagree, they always care, they’re always there when you need, satisfaction guaranteed.

Sorry, I was paraphrasing this really old song by Atlanta Rhythm Section that the phrase “imaginary reader” made me think of. The person for whom I imagine I am writing changes. If working on a picture book, I often imagine if my pre-school son would like it or if it is more problem-solution, I think of elementary students with whom I used to work, if it would be useful in some of their situations. If working on the YA (possibly adult) stuff, I have a vague imagining of an adolescent girl reading it, hoping that she would find the protagonist inspiring--to be independent and confident and not terrified of making a mistake, finding at least part of her identity before tying it to someone else. I purposely try not to imagine my adolescent self as the reader! Sometimes I do worry about friends or family reading it or parents of my son’s friends or former students because of language/violence/sexual content. Then I think how unrealistic that would be since I would never reach that broad an audience and I don’t ask friends or family to read anything I have written. whew.

It’s a big contrast from writing my grad school thesis, which I imagined just our professors and some classmates reading. When we next submitted for symposium I imagined the professors from other schools reading it. Then we won and were asked to submit for publication. I didn’t really imagine the journal editor reading it, just took her notes, and then did feel anxious about social workers, some of whom had participated in the study, across the state reading it. It was exciting that the participants would be able to see the results but a bit nerve-wracking opening ourselves up to questions regarding research methodology, statistical analysis, or the conclusions we drew.

If I write something I know I will bring to critique group, I only briefly consider my fellow writers reading it. That used to be scarier, but now I look forward to it because it’s so instructive and people want you to have good work. They bring different perspectives to the table--the funny part is when one person really likes how you did some specific part and another person wants you to change it completely. It’s really helpful when more than one person has the same reaction to a part of the story. Seminars and courses have taught me how to imagine editors and agents as the readers, and some editors and agents maintain blogs with great tips about what they look for. I think the writer takes that into account more when revising, not when writing the story originally, unless given a specific assignment from an editor.

More and more, I imagine myself as the reader. Sometimes my actual self just wants to throw it all out, but authors at workshops have suggested to never throw out anything you have written. Come back to it and maybe parts of it will work for you. So I try to imagine my future self reading something I wrote and deciding it wasn’t as awful as I initially thought, in fact, it might be something I could work with. Don’t censor yourself. I also ask myself if what I’m writing is something I would enjoy reading, if no one else ever saw it. Is it something I would go back to and read again or keep adding to? This question becomes important because I really don’t know if I do want to try to get my stuff published. (How Salinger of me, minus the previous literary credibility.) I do have that sense of once it’s out there, you can’t change it anymore. And then, of course, the imagined reader becomes real.


  1. Problem with Imaginary Readers is they only pay Imaginary Bucks. Good point to think of yourself as reader - I do imagine my reading my story out loud to kids!

  2. I think it would be a shame if kids never got to read your stories. Especially my favorite, The Ghoulsbys Go To Town.

  3. You better get published! Imagined readers will become real!!