November 16 post: writer-based prose vs. reader-based prose.

I was sure I had already published this post, but I had not. I “remembered” this post when I read The Pulp Archivist linking to my previous posts on writing. He says:

Given that writing has such a separation between the speaker and the audience, it is no surprise that many writers forget about the audience altogether. Many literary novelties are written for the speaker’s sake–such as three codas to a story written in the three persons of point of view–and not for the effect on the audience. The faults tackled in these blogs all boil down to writers forgetting about the audience and focusing on the flash of writing

My answer was “ah, yes, that’s like that thing about the writer vs. reader-based post I had… uh, did I actually wrote that or just thought a lot about it?” Well, apparently, the later. So let’s redress that…

I discovered what I’m going to tell you quite some time ago, but I had no name for it. Investigating a bit, I found (as usually happens) that someone had already discovered the same, and had even named it: writer-based prose, and its opposite, reader-based prose. In 1979, Linda Flower (currently a professor of rhetoric at the Carnegie Mellon University), published her article “Writer-Based Prose: A Cognitive Basis for Problems in Writing.” There’s one sentence that I believe should be highlighted:

In its language and structure, Reader-Based prose reflects the purpose of the writer’s thought; Writer-Based prose tends to reflect its process.

I may deviate a bit from her thesis and add a few ideas of my own, but the central concept of this post will generally go back to that point: good writing is for the reader, bad writing is for the writer. Now, she wasn’t talking about fiction, but I believe the same distinction applies.

What is writer-based prose? Egocentric writing, and how you think. Also, natural writing, because it’s what is more common and easier.

I’ll give you a simple example so you understand what I mean. You may have seen a version of this joke in a movie: the protagonist cannot find its way inside a building, so he asks a random person for directions, and that person answers something like “oh, sure, just go…” and then unloads an impossible to remember set of instructions that span three floors and a dozen turns. That’s what writer-based prose is: the writer (the one explaining something) isn’t really explaining/writing something so that someone else understands it, he is just explaining/repeating it to himself, using his own mental coding. He is remembering how to go there, not explaining it.

Instead of starting with the important bit (e.g. it’s two floors above, near X) he explains the route he would follow, as the process of getting there from where they are, something that is intuitive to him but not to anybody else. Of course, this is easier and less mentally-demanding for the explainer, but incomprehensible for the one asking the question.

I’ll give examples of what could be considered writer-based prose in fiction:

  • a blow-by-blow, sequential fighting or action scene.
  • a telegraphic description of what a character does or sees as he goes from point A to point B.
  • cumulative/serial descriptions of a place or someone’s appearance, without a general or holistic description or effect.
  • a dialogue whose sentence, in isolation, make some sense, but taken together look puzzling, like its the same person talking to itself
  • temporal and spatial lapses. The writer forgets to state spatial (where they are) or temporal (when it is happening) dimensions where the action takes place, or its transitions, changes, or relationships.
  • a narrative that looks like it was taken straight from a movie or video game.
  • lack of references, from missing pronouns, or phantom references, like mentioning something that doesn’t appear in the entire text.
  • lack of emotion or excessive sentimentalism.
  • writing that seems to be engulfed by a particular emotional state (usually negative) that never changes or leaves anything unspoiled.
  • the feeling that all characters are the same person.
  • lack of context to understand what is going on.

I think that’s enough. These may seem unrelated, but they are actually different manifestations of a similar problem: the writers’ inability to write for someone who isn’t them. The inability to think outside their heads, so to speak.

Writing is not about “expressing yourself.” It can be used for that, sure, but that’s what your diary is for. Almost any other type of writing is, in fact, rhetorical, it has an audience, one you have to “persuade.” Most writing blunders can indeed be boiled down to that problem, to the fact that something may make sense inside your head, but none at all for the reader.

Have you ever noticed that many experts are awful at explaining their knowledge to outsiders or novices? The problem is very similar here. The experts have all that information encoded in what could be described as a private language. The beginners have nothing. Well, many fiction writers are experts about the fictional worlds they have created, but nobody else is, and they have to persuade readers to care enough to buy, literally and metaphorically, their description and explanations. That’s a rhetorical problem.

It may be that the problems I saw with what is called Deep POV come from its tendency to reinforce a writer-based way of writing that ignores the cognitive needs of the audience. Judging by many of the writing tips you can find online, where the reader or audience apparently doesn’t seem to exist, that may be the case. Even the known “show, don’t tell,” if not explained correctly, may do more harm than good if the writers end up “showing” it to themselves.

It’s possible that the writers of fantasy and science fiction may be the ones most afflicted by this curse. These authors may have spent hundreds, thousands of hours playing with ideas, scenes, worlds, battles, and more inside their heads, so for them those things seem inherently interesting… but the readers have done none of that. They just have words on paper.

Notice that the quote from the paper on reader vs. writer-based prose said: “In its language and structure, Reader-Based prose reflects…” I guess an example of the former would be the once very popular, but luckily not so much anymore, very detailed descriptions in a fantasy story of a character’s clothing using the most archaic language possible. And I mean one or two entire paragraphs devoted to that.

If you read those, you can pretty much follow the writer’s eye as he sees the mental picture he has of the character and then goes first to the shirt, then the trousers, then the ornaments, then this or that, and so forth, piling up as he adds another piece of clothing and then remembers he forgot another so he has to add another paragraph, etc. Structurally, that’s reflected in the sequential arrangement, reflecting the writer’s ideas as they pop up in his head, without any general impression or definitive idea, only items being pilled up.

A more reader-focused writer would understand that the reader has no idea of the writer’s own mental picture of the character. He would understand that piling up descriptions merely reflects the process of the writer as he thinks, but may not say much to the reader. He would also understand the text needs to have some purpose or, if it doesn’t have one and it’s just, literally, how the character is dressed, would cut it down to a single sentence or two, tops.

A similar thing could be said of action scenes or the description of a building, which are surprisingly similar in how they are made and how boring they usually are. The writer may have an awesome kung-fu scene in his mind, like one from some movie, and if you are lucky the reader will recognize it and will make most of the work for you. Perhaps the story is from some long-established setting, like Star Wars or Warhammer, so if the reader reads something about Jedis or Space Marines fighting, he can easily picture it. But perhaps he has nothing at all to use as a reference. Perhaps the reader is your grandma.

Do you think she cares or, for that matter, will be able to follow seven, ten, or twenty punches, kicks, dodges and rolls, each one detailing from what direction they come? That’s worse than the joke of trying to follow someone’s incomprehensible direction. Remember: she only has your words to go on, nothing else. I have actually read many fighting scenes where the writer gave a very detailed description of each blow… but forgot to say anything about where it was happening. Of course, inside his head the where and the context were self-evident, but not to the reader. As Flower’s original paper said:

Whether he or she likes it or not the reader is in for a blow-by-blow account of the writers’ discovery process.

The description of spaces, places, and buildings follow the same pattern, and the original paper in fact mentions a psychological study on how people explain such a thing:

Linde and Labov asked one hundred New Yorkers to “tell me the layout of your apartment”as a part of a “sociological survey.” Only 3% of the subjects responded with a map which gave an overview and then filled in the details; for example, “I’d say it’s laid out in a huge square pattern, broken down into 4 units.” The overwhelming majority (97%) all solved the problem by describing a tour: “You walk in the front door. There was a narrow hallway. To the left, etc.”

What do you think is the most common way places (or anything, for that matter) are described in fiction, the first or the second style? The second, and that’s both a writer-based prose AND a Deep POV issue.

Note that the first way of explaining is one that takes into consideration the needs of the audience/reader and, most importantly, it follows a logic opposed to current writing fashions: that you should follow a character’s thoughts and emotions as closely as possible. Of course, that leads to that sort of “tours,” but that’s not really what the reader needs. He needs a bigger picture, he needs processed thoughts, and that’s why the narrator exists. The paper continues:

For us, the revealing sidenote to this experiment is that although the tour strategy was intuitively selected by the overwhelming majority of the speakers, the resulting description was generally very difficult for the listener to follow and almost impossible to reproduce.

I should point out that Flower describes that way of writing as “narrative,” following the style and logic of books and stories. I would add a qualifier: the style and logic of bad stories.




4 thoughts on “November 16 post: writer-based prose vs. reader-based prose.

  1. Another excellent and thought-provoking post.

    The part about character descriptions and fight scenes is very striking. A lot of amateurish as opposed to amateur writing I see overdoes the character descriptions and the fight scenes.

    I don’t need to know every single ring on the woman’s fingers or how the precious gemstones are inlaid on the warrior-king’s scabbard unless it’s integral to the story. Likewise, fight scenes that last more then a few paragraphs make my eyes glaze over. This could just be personal preference, but I think not.

    “Write for the reader” seems like the fundamental basis of the pulp revolution movement as I understand it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “…writing that seems to be engulfed by a particular emotional state (usually negative) that never changes or leaves anything unspoiled.

    Seems to me this is a problem that’s endemic to “literary” writing. There’s so much literary fiction (even technically well-written stuff) that’s just a depressing slog. Everyone and everything the prose touches is utterly joyless, if not actively repulsive. Sarah Hoyt calls it the “gray goo” effect. I’d even go so far as to say that the entire genre of modern literary fiction seems to exist only to gratify the writers of it.


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