You should write with an ideal reader in your mind. That seems a reasonable suggestion. But then, if you think about it, you realize that what seems reasonable is instead total bullshit.
After all, you reason, if you’re writing a book in your preferred genre you’d be better off writing a book that you yourself would love to read. Certainly, you don’t need to go and find some ideal reader out there. After all you should know yourself pretty well, shouldn’t you? In any case, a lot better than anyone else.
That’s an understandable reaction. But things aren’t so straightforward. Not in life in general, and definitively not when it comes to creative writing.
To start with, many people have pretty imprecise ideas about themselves. Or, to say it flatly, they tend to fool themselves all the time. For example, people who are less prepared on a subject tend to think they know a lot about it. Instead, experts tend to underestimate their knowledge.
It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect and you can read about it in this article.
You and me – bad and good
Also social pressure, status, and many other issues can affect your reactions, and make you answer in ways that are completely out of character.
In psychology, the third-person effect, and its opposite, the first-person effect are well known phenomena.
In fact no one likes to say of themselves they are greed, stingy, or illogical. But as soon as they can say so of someone else, they jump at the occasion. In short, objective evaluation of both positive and negative traits is always extremely difficult.
It is for this reason that psychological tests are always to be evaluated by expert psychologists.
Ideal reader… a mirage?
Given that writing with an ideal reader in mind means that you basically write for someone you have made up in your mind, it’s easy to imagine the countless problems that can affect this ideal reader.
If it’s over enthusiastic maybe it’s just your mom with a mask. If it’s vitriolic maybe it is your mother-in-law… I think you get the idea.
Luckily, the solution to this dilemma is simple. For example, I write keeping in mind an ideal reader who is someone I know in real life. Someone who loves the same genre of books I love.
In this way I can write to entertain myself, but then when the moment comes to really evaluate what I wrote, thinking of my friend (and ideal reader) helps me to more easily discern the parts that work from those which need revising or maybe even cutting.
As a rule, I don’t write books in genres I don’t like. But if I did I think I would go the same route. I would try to write a book able to entertain me as much as possible, but with an attentive eye to the reactions of my friend.
In short, the trick is in finding a real person who reads and enjoys the genre you want to write in and turn her into your ideal reader.
Doing this you can more easily imagine her reactions, and in a more balanced manner too. In fact given you don’t have to interact or confront your ideal reader, third-person and first-person phenomena can’t interfere with your judgement.
In this way your ego will be better kept at bay. And your book will end up being a better book.
Only for rookies?
Of course, once your experience grows and you have finished a certain number of books your instinct will have refined and gotten more reliable about what works and what doesn’t.
But for some people this self-confidence can be dangerous. Because they might end up believing they have gotten to know all there is to know, and consequently believe are mistake-proof.
This is not such a rare occurrence. If you look around you can always find writers who are publishing little more that their shopping list.
So, in the end, keeping in mind an ideal reader who is also going around in real life and can bang you on your head if you displeases him, seems like the best option.
As for me, my ideal reader is my wife. She is also my first beta reader. So she gets the opportunity to nag me both in everyday life and in the fictional life I live inside my head. And judging from the glee I spot in her eyes at times, I bet she relishes her position. A lot.