You Don't Say ...

When my first book was published 22 years ago, I held my breath as people started to give me feedback. Though I didn’t want to hear negative comments (and there actually weren’t that many), I was prepared for them. What I wasn’t prepared for was how readers were perceiving the story. No two interpretations were the same, and most were in some way different than what I had intended. And I should know — right? After all, I wrote the book!

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Then I had a second book published, and I’ll be darned, if the same thing didn’t happen again. I began to wonder if I wasn’t being clear enough in my writing. Why were readers seeing things I hadn’t written and focusing on things I hadn’t intended to emphasize? Perhaps I needed to flesh things out more.

And then it dawned on me. As a writer, I contributed only half of a story’s content. It was the reader, who made up the rest, and because each reader comes with a unique history and agenda, what he or she perceives the story to be, and what that person takes away from it varies from reader to reader. So when a reader describes a scene from the story that she particularly liked, and she is describing details I never wrote into the story, I know I reached her.

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I did my job. It’s okay that she sees the story slightly differently than I do. In fact, it is a very good thing. Readers need to be allowed that latitude. Instead of telling the reader how to interpret a character’s values, a writer should show the character in action and let the reader decide for him or herself. The assessment will vary slightly depending on the values and experiences the reader brings to the story. But that’s okay.

So it is that I have worked hard as a writer to provide just enough information to plant a seed and let the reader make it grow. As I’ve honed my craft, I’ve learned that what I don’t say is just as important as the words I put to paper.

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