Why the Reader Is Your Co-Writer

Why the Reader Is Your Co-Writer

No story is created by one person. Written by one person, yes. But if the only imagination involved is the writer’s, the story will never be anything more than black marks on the page. A book is just a doorstop until readers lift the cover, recognize and process the words, and then use those words to bring the story to life in their own minds. When readers decide to join hands with us, they are, in essence, becoming our co-writers.

The Responsibilities of the Reader

This whole collaboration is pretty awesome on a number of levels. For one thing, it means the burden of crafting a perfect story isn’t ours alone. Our job is to guide the readers’ imaginations, but it’s their job to put their imaginations to work in the first place. The story their minds project will never be exactly the one we (not to mention their fellow readers) see.

Admittedly, this can get a bit frustrating for the average control-freak writer who doesn’t want readers messing with even the smallest detail of a story. But the good part is that once readers invest in a story by recreating it in their own imaginations, they own that story just as much as we do. They’re caught in its web just as we are. After that’s happened, chances are good they’re going to love it just as much as we do.

The second awesome thing is that when readers join us as co-writers, the concept of suspension of disbelief becomes almost moot. As Steve Almond says:

All readers come to fiction as willing accomplices to your lies.

In Creating Characters, Dwight V. Swain agrees:

…readers know a story isn’t real, isn’t true. But in their role of fiction fans, on an unconscious level they pretend it is true, accept it and live through it with the characters.

The Responsibilities of the Writer

Other than being kind of a neat concept, what does this notion that the reader is our co-writer mean to us?

To begin with, it means we have to be willing to relinquish just a little bit of control. We have to be able to trust our readers to be smart, to be honest, to be demanding, and to be forgiving. When we come right down to it, we have the most awesome business partners in the world. How many high-powered business gurus would kill to have partners so trustworthy and accomplished?

In a Writer’s Digest interview with Jessica Strawser, novelist Chris Cleave expounded:

[T]rust your readers, from the sentence level—you don’t need to hammer a point home—all the way through to the level of the whole novel. You can trust readers to let you write about difficult, complicated subjects…. [Readers] do half the creative work with the novel.

But this hardly means we can dump all the work onto readers. If we don’t do our job right to begin with, they won’t even have a chance to do theirs. Dwight V. Swain again (this time from Techniques of the Selling Writer):

That incredible, pompous, egocentric gem from the pen of a “literary” novelist, “I write. Let the reader to learn to read,” would be funny, were it not so ridiculous as to be tragic. To refuse to write so that a mass audience can understand you, and then rage because that same audience rejects you, is about on a par with insisting that grade-school youngsters learn their ABC’s from college physics texts. Most professionals accept it as their job to devise ways to communicate with their readers, regardless of said readers’ level. After all, if you feel too superior, you can always go hunt a different market.

The Bottom Line

Authors don’t always know quite how to relate to readers—which is ironic, since not only are readers pretty easy to figure out, they’re also a club to which almost all authors belong themselves.

To understand the balance of power between author and reader, all we have to do is consider our own reading experiences.

Ask yourself:

  • What authors have given you the greatest amount of creative control (and, as a result, emotional investment) in their stories?
  • Which authors have hoarded the co-writing responsibilities and prevented you from adding your own imaginative flourishes?
  • Which authors have demanded too much production from you without supplying the tools your imagination needs to work with?

Readers aren’t our enemies or our dupes. They want to love your story. They want you to sweep them off their feet into a world of excitement and insight. They  can’t wait to be your partner, and the only way you can endanger all that enthusiasm is by either failing to fulfill your own responsibilities—or by failing to trust them with their.

Paul Auster says it like this:

…the book doesn’t only belong to the writer, it belongs to the reader as well, and then together you make it what it is.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you believe the reader is your co-writer? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I believe that what the writer leaves out is sometimes more important than what we put in. The reader needs to be able to fill in those parts with his own imagination. When a writer tells me all the details of a character, like hair and eye color, and those aren’t my own characteristics, I am unable to become the character, which limits my participation in the story.

  2. Absolutely. That’s always going to be a fine line to walk, but it’s true that over-explaining can kill a book just as fast (if not faster) than under-explaining. We have to trust readers to be just as smart and imaginative as we are.

  3. I’m of the opinion that a good book is nearly always better than motion pictures. An engaged reader can visualize and experience scenes that easily exceed the budget of even large budget movies.
    Sure, there are exceptions but I’ve seen few of them.
    Thanks for another good post.

  4. I learned early on not to over-explain. I also learned not to be alarmed if a reader does not see the people, places, and things I’ve described exactly the same way I do. Their imagination might be even better than mine.

  5. @Rich: Books and movies are such different animals. They both tell stories, but they go about it in such different ways and bring such different strengths and weaknesses to the table. Movies are so prevalent and popular these days that authors can often fall into the trap of trying to make their books *be* movies. But, that, of course, is impossible and totally robs the reading experience of its own strengths (which isn’t to say novelists can’t learn many things from the medium of film).

    @Abby: I remember being upset early on to discover that a reader pictured a different hair color for one of my protagonists. I’ve since learned to see that as a good thing. :p

  6. “A book is just a doorstop until readers lift the cover” –

    inspiring really, thank you 😉

  7. Thanks for reading!

  8. A very thought-provoking post, KM. It made me recall my experiences as a reader, which began before I started writing, and realize that as a reader I’m also creating fiction when reading a novel or shorter piece. I find myself coloring in characteristics of characters, as some commenters have said, and also having a mental conversation with the writer – sometimes quite a spirited one! It’s as if the writer is talking on the page and I’m replying in my mind. And sometimes I get so incensed at, forex, the writer’s treatment of a character or characters that I want to ‘have it out’ with the writer, by emailing her/him via a website, agent, publisher etc. Never a good idea, especially if the character I want to ‘rescue’ is now on the writer’s back burner while other characters are being cooked. So it’s back to my mental conversation with the page!

  9. I love the idea of the writing/reading experience being like a conversation. Great analogy! It’s a give and take, a joint experience. The writer takes the reader by the hand and leads him on an adventure, and the reader trusts him to keep him safe and not waste his time.

  10. This is a concept I’ve known for quite a while now but I’ve never been able to put it across as clearly as you just have. Thank you!

    I love experimenting with exactly how much information you need to give to the reader and how much you can hint at or allow them to fill in.

    Obviously, you want to provide them with all the scenes and details they need to put the story together, but if you do your job right you can often stop short of completing a conversation or a scene because the reader has already filled that in.

    This encourages you to view the reader as an intelligent person who is ‘co-writing’ alongside you. If you show them you know they’re intelligent, they’ll come back again and again because we all love spending time with people who respect us.

    Thanks again for compiling those quotes and describing the concept so well. 🙂

  11. I think it also depends on the style of the writer. We were reading To Kill a Mockingbird (which I think is an excellent example) and noticing so many things (the symbolism and parallels and different “mockingbirds” and studying the characters). But it’s sad because some readers wouldn’t notice them unless they were in a book club or reading the book because they had to in school.
    I also like that the author left some questions unanswered so that we would have to think about them and answer them for ourselves if we were curious enough. Because Curiosity gets a reader’s attention.

  12. @Jessica: “Stopping short of completing a conversation” is something we can learn a lot about from the movies. So often, they’ll do a quick cut away from a conversation that the viewer already knows the bulk of. For example, when one character is going to tell another character something the reader is already familiar with, it does so much to tighten up the pacing and keep readers interested.

    @Writer: Curiosity is the magic ingredient in any writer’s stew. If we’ve hooked readers with a question and given them the tools to answer the question, we know we’ve done our job right.

  13. Oh so true!! As a reader, if the first chapter doesn’t grab me and hook me in, I tend to put the book down. It happened to me with the first Harry Potter book back in 2005 when I first read it. Sad, huh?

    But once I became a writer, I began to approach reading differently…fairly. So, I picked up that first Harry Potter book again in 2011 and LOVED IT!! I am almost finished with the series. So sorry I waited so long!

    Now I consider those who read as I did…make sure that first chapter hooks them in, but also realize the reader has a part in the storytelling too. This way of seeing things when I read has improved my writing AND reading.

  14. Fantastic post! Great approach to the idea.

  15. @Ruth: I do think being writers gives us a whole new perspective when reading – and not just from a technical standpoint. We become more understanding of the process required to even get a story to print.

    @Lalammar: Glad you enjoyed the post!

  16. Aww, this post was as cute as it is true. Is what we all have experienced as readers. We DO want to love the story, we just need a writer who will allow us to!
    Thank you for the great post ^^

  17. The great thing about writers is that they’re almost always readers. So we *are* our own best audience. All we have to do is put on our reading caps while writing and we can give readers exactly what they’re looking for.

  18. Yes, we have to be our first audience!

  19. What a great message – and lesson.

    I’ve recently completed a first draft and on sitting down to edit, I figured I needed to check if everything was in its right place and made sense, but then, in my heart, I hear, “No; it’s time to make certain your characters have opened up their heart to the reader. They need to be vulnerable to the reader.” So stumbling across your post (on Pinterest) today, I am even more inclined to humble myself before the reader and work to honour them.

    Thank you!

  20. Glad you stopped by! There’s a great quote (can’t remember who said it, off the top of my head) about writing the first draft for ourselves and editing for our readers.

  21. True! Every story is perceived by everyone out there slightly differently. Everyone pour in their own experiences. That’s just another beauty of fiction.

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