Why Writers Must Assume their Readers are Intelligent

A few weeks ago, I was reading through a number of Paris Review interviews in search of clues as to how great writers view the crafting of their art. What emerged was an appreciating Jeffrey Eugenides’ crucial advice for aspiring writers:

I tell my students that when you write, you should pretend you’re writing the best letter you ever wrote to the smartest friend you have. That way, you’ll never dumb things down. You won’t have to explain things that don’t need explaining.

This seemingly innocuous advice pinpoints to a reality that many writers are acutely aware of: we live in a progressively technological world driven by attention competition, and therefore, in order to say anything of substance, we must act as though we know who we are speaking with, because this will allow us to say what we truly feel.

There are many things at play here: knowledge and reality are intertwined, in order to act “naturally” with those you are trying to address, because:

You’ll assume an intimacy and a natural shorthand, which is good because readers are smart and don’t wish to be condescended to.

Eugenides, who has published a total of three novels during the course of his 15 odd years of writing oeuvre, manages to mesmerize with each of his publications. The Virgin Suicides and The Marriage Plot remain on my list of favorite novels. He currently teaches at Princeton, pinpoints to us that we must indeed keep our readers in mind.

James Gibbons, the interviewer for Paris Review, asks Eugenides, “Do you write with a sense of your audience? Or is it more like how Gertrude Stein said, that you write for yourself and strangers?”

Eugenides’ answer portrays a loyalty to his readers. Eugenides distinguishes between readers and audience, never using the word “audience” in his reply, but focusing what it means to be a reader:

I think about the reader. I care about the reader. Not “audience.” Not “readership.” Just the reader. That one person, alone in a room, whose time I’m asking for.

The reason that Eugenides gives showcases how, in the current socio-political reality we currently live in, it is important to think about imparting work that is substantive, edited for content:

I want my books to be worth the reader’s time, and that’s why I don’t publish the books I’ve written that don’t meet this criterion, and why I don’t publish the books I do until they’re ready.

Lastly, Eugenides reminds us that our readers are important because we are all readers, writers included, and are impressed by the legacies of what moves us on paper, because they rejoice in an objective human intelligence:

The novels I love are novels I live for. They make me feel smarter, more alive, more tender toward the world. I hope, with my own books, to transmit that same experience, to pass it on as best I can.

In conclusion, if we take all of Eugenides’ work at point value, what we learn about imparting knowledge, is that we must appeal to our reader’s intelligence. Otherwise, our imprint on our readers will be fleeting.


10 thoughts on “Why Writers Must Assume their Readers are Intelligent

  1. I was recently listening to a podcast about writing hard science fiction, and one of the things that kept coming up with the assumption of a reader’s knowledge of what you’re talking about. Their example was about a planet that had no tides, so it was assumed that the reader would know that in order for tides to occur, a moon must be present, therefore the reader could figure out they had no moon.
    It’s a good reminder, good post 🙂

    • What a fantastic example to think about, that without a moon, there wouldn’t be a tide, and a sci-fi loving audience would remember this! Thanks for sharing, and I’m glad you liked the post! 🙂

  2. I heard Peter Rock, an author and writing teacher from Reed College (in Portland, Oregon, USA), speak recently on this very topic. He said, “The writer must not condescend to the reader.” Great advice reiterated here.

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