Reader experience is one side of the writing coin, and as such is quite important. There is another, that of the creation of deeper meaning, and that side will be addressed in its own due time. With regard to the former, the temptation for many writers is to write a story they like, throw it up on Amazon, and watch the money roll in. This ignores a fundamental reality, namely that people don’t buy books for your entertainment. They don’t care about you, they’ll never care about you, and they by all rights shouldn’t care about you. You’re the cow – you make the milk they drink – and no one should love their cow. Ok, that got out of hand. But! They buy books for their entertainment, or perhaps more accurately for the experience your book offers them. Thus, if you’re writing with even a passing eye to commercial purposes or the creation of a book that is good in the minds of the rest of the world, the reader’s experience must be part and parcel of your everyday practice of writing (though, I strongly recommend against actually making writing a practice undertaken every day).
That in mind, the trick to picking up on reader experience, as the cow, is empathy. In large part this, like everything in writing, is innate. I cannot teach you to be empathetic. If I could, I would be the greatest abnormal psychotherapist the world has ever known. What I can teach you is how to harness the empathy you (presumably) already have to see your book as others would. The key to that is to allow your book to create a sort of feedback loop. It will flow out of you – that’s simply how writing works – but it must then be allowed to flow back in, the energy of what’s on the page returning to you such that you can see what it feels like.
There’s a theory of writing that says you should be aloof, self-conscious as you write, that you should be external to the prose such that you can precisely choose your phrases. This isn’t entirely wrong. If you’re buried under the emotion of your character, that can be a serious concern in terms of conveying what needs to be conveyed. That being said, being entirely divorced from the proceedings can be problematic as well. The solution is one of two things:
- Draw a balance in which you are as emotional as you can be while maintaining rational precision in your writing. Be in the moment, feel what your characters feel, but don’t allow it to overwhelm you.
- Maintain as much focus as you can, keep a professional distance from your characters, and record their feelings as extrinsic to your own.
In either case, what you’ve done is to leave yourself somewhat apart from things in order to maintain the analytical mind necessary to write effectively. The reader does not, for the most part, do this. Instead, the reader, when your book is good, falls into it, feeling what the characters feel, the prose being a vehicle to take them there rather than something they focus on word by word as you must. Reaching this mindset is why the advice to let a book sit for a year is so potent – the further you are from it, the less you remember of it, and the more you’re able to look at it as a reader rather than as its creator.
Still, not all of us has the time or the patience to let things sit that long. Some have deadlines, some have bills, some just don’t like the idea of setting themselves so far apart from their work mid-project. All of these are perfectly valid, which means we need another way. That brings us right back around to empathy. If you cannot take the time to get to where a reader is, you must make an intellectual exercise out of empathizing with your reader. When you read a phrase, don’t ask yourself whether it’s a good phrase on its merits, but rather what effect it will have on the reader. How will they feel when they read it? How will they feel about the next sentence having read it?
This is time-consuming, emotionally draining, and intellectually exhausting, but it’s also absolutely necessary if you’re going to create something the reading public will enjoy and take away from what you intend them to.
This is also naturally going to be a very imperfect, very touch-and-go production. For the vast majority of the population, it’s close to impossible to fully empathize with how others will see one’s creations. Outside eyes, especially those trained to spot the reader experience, are, if not necessary, extremely helpful. Editing is the best and most obvious answer, but insofar as beta readers can be said to have even a passing competence they, too, stand to elucidate the reader experience for you above and beyond what you, as both reader and writer, could.