How Writers Can Give Readers the Freedom to Think and Feel

By Jack Limpert

Editorial insight from a recent post, “Let Your Reader Do the Work,” by Kami McArthur on the Authors Think Tank blog:

I have the opportunity to read a lot of unpublished content, and every so often I find a story where the writer doesn’t let their readers do the emotional work. I’ve heard the writing rule that if your character is crying, then your reader doesn’t have to….

Here are the examples I ran into. Harry Potter: while Harry is on the verge of crying several times in the series, he never actually does….If Harry ever broke down and bawled, I don’t know that I would have….There is something about having your character cry that takes the tension out of the reader. The character is doing the emotional work, so the reader doesn’t have to.

Another look at how to engage the reader:

The New York Times Book Review last June had an essay by Adam LeBor about writing a spy novel; these two grafs talk about the difference between journalism and fiction:

The essence of journalism is revelation and explanation: We present the causes and consequences of an event for the reader. We answer the questions, convey the complexities, and do the thinking so you don’t have to. Or not too much.

The essence of fiction, especially thriller writing, is exactly the opposite: obsfuscation, mystery, and deception loop through a maze of switchbacks—ideally strewn with the dead bodies of double agents, dupes, femmes fatales, sinister businessmen. “It’s important to be judicious with the facts in a novel,” the writer Alan Furst told me in a phone interview. “Not to give too much away too soon and to move the story along to keep the reader hooked.”

LeBor says the reader finds pleasure in making the connections himself.
McArthur and LeBor are talking about writing fiction that engages the emotions of the reader. While editing magazine stories, I saw the challenge as more letting the reader think.

I asked Mike Feinsilber, a longtime wire service journalist, most recently the writing coach for the AP, about whether he ever talked with AP reporters about letting the reader think. Here’s what he said:

Most stories out of Washington are about ongoing situations; nothing ever gets finished. I always argued that reporters can’t assume readers had read, or remembered, yesterday’s story. They have lives outside of Washington, outside of the news. So I crusaded for clarity, and for summarizing the background high in the story.

I argued that people don’t mind being told what they already know. On the other hand, and this I think isn’t contradictory, I preached that readers don’t want to be told what to think, what to conclude. If you write that a proposal is “daring” or an outcome was “surprising,” you robbed the reader of the opportunity to think “Gee, that’s surprising.” You’ve told him what to think.
My reply to Mike:

I edited several writers who were savvy researchers-reporters and were good at explanatory pieces. Their problem was they couldn’t resist scattering topic sentences throughout their stories. A high school or college English teacher had drummed into them the need for topic sentences to help the reader understand what he’s reading—English teachers say such sentences add cohesion and help organize ideas.

To explain something in the explanatory story, the writer often would get a good quote from someone knowledgeable and then the writer would add a sentence or  two  in front of the quote telling the reader what the quote meant. They couldn’t break the English class habit.
Consider this situation. One of the most moving stories The Washingtonian published was titled “Hope All Things, Endure All Things” and there was an editor-writer battle about one sentence. The writer was John Pekkanen, a National Magazine Award finalist for this story.

The story deck said: “Dr. Paul Adkins glanced at the clock above the lightbox. It was 3:10 p.m. on Wednesday. He took a final look at his x-rays and the thought hit him: ‘I am looking at my own obituary.’” Pekkanen then told how a surgeon coped with a lung cancer that he had spent his entire career treating. Dealing with the cancer became a battle between a man’s head and his heart, what he knew and what he hoped.

Late in the story, Paul Adkins’s son Mark was rushing from New York City to Washington because he’d been told his father didn’t have much time left. Pekkanen had written, “Mark raced from the airport terminal to the subway and got off at the Foggy Bottom stop. He ran up the steps of the long escalator. As he approached the top he had a full view of the front of GW hospital. The flag at the entrance was at half-mast. Paul Adkins had died.”

I wanted to cut the last sentence. I thought the moment would have more emotional impact if the reader only was told the flag was at half-mast. John resisted cutting the sentence but finally said okay. He accepted the idea that the reader didn’t have to be told what the flag at half-mast meant—it was better to let the reader make the connection.
John won two National Magazine Awards for his writing. One of the stories was “The Saving of the President,” a 1981 narrative about what happened to President Ronald Reagan after he was shot in an assassination attempt and was taken to George Washington University hospital.

We talked today about how he approached writing narrative stories.

First, he said, comes lots of reporting. He’s a believer in interviewing the key participants in a narrative two or three times, coming back again and again to get more detail, to find the equivalent of what he called striking gold, finding the descriptions and quotes that make the narrative something special.

When writing about a dramatic situation, his advice is to keep the language simple, almost flat, with a minimum of adverbs and adjectives. “It’s almost like minimalist art, where the viewer is left to make his own interpretation of what he or she sees. In a way that is what the best narrative writing does.

“If you use a minimalist approach and simply tell the story, particularly those parts of the story where you’re trying to achieve emotional crescendos, it allows the reader to infuse his or her own emotions. I think this has a more powerful effect that if you tried to tell the reader how he or she should feel.”

The editor often can be most helpful by working with the writer to decide what can be cut. When a writer does a lot of reporting, the natural urge is to want to use it in the story. More than one writer in effect told me, “I worked hard to get that and you want to take it out?”

The editor can help the writer decide what gets in the way of the narrative—what Pekkanen calls “the underbrush.” Sometimes it pained him to see some of his reporting edited out, but in the end he was more interested in publishing a story that kept the reader reading and might win another National Magazine Award.


  1. This reminds me of the issues of how much of a laugh track to put on a t.v. comedy — how much facial expression (or exaggerated facial expression to cue particular emotions) — what musical cues are necessary. 🙂 LOL.

    In my work I write a lot of letters to folks with varying reading skills, and my own skills fluctuate, too. Seems to me that a wire service has to write the most broadly. I don’t say lowest common denominator. But if the same AP article will appear in The Washington Post and in The New York Times and The New York Post and in Chicago and Yuma and El Paso, a high denominator is tough to maintain. The readers will not all be Washingtonian and New Yorker subscribers.

    I don’t think people just read less well than 50 years ago. But there is research about different processing and (lower?) comprehension reading on a screen than tactile-ly reading paper. I bet that is the biggest difference. I am a better proof-reader of paper than what I write on a screen. So maybe a reader, like me, thinks less and creates less his/her own perplexity or astonishment based on the platform of the “writing.” T.V. has certainly researched this, and whether in comedy or drama or news, seems to just hammer away.

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