What Readers and Writers Owe Each Other

As readers, we often act as if we are owed something by a writer: an agreeable view point, a certain quality, thoughts on a specific subject. Read the comments on enough web articles or blogs and you’ll quickly realize the entitlement we have as readers. When our favorite sports columnist writes about movies we are peeved that he wasted OUR precious time with such drivel. When a preferred theologian gives thoughts on sports we respond with a “stick to theology, that’s why we’re here.”

As readers, do we have a right to act as if a writer owes us something? I think we do, but not in the way that we most often make the claim. As readers we are owed something we like or with which we agree. But writers do owe us something, a whole combination of somethings, in fact.

The reader deserves thoughtfulness from the writer. This is not the same as agreement or unanimity, but the reader is owed the result of careful consideration and reflection. The result may be agreeable to the reader or it may not, but the process must be well-thought through.

A writer owes the reader explanation. This is especially true when the writer has become known for a certain kind of thought or subject but has decided to diverge from that. Rationale for why he has gone a certain direction with his thought is important, even if the reader doesn’t agree.

Effort is a non-negotiable for writers, no matter who his reader is. The reader won’t always be able to recognize this in a specific piece, but it’s not hard to tell when a writer has mailed it in over time. Writers should not publish just to publish but because they have something at which they worked.

Honesty is a paramount quality of every good writer, one that opens the door between him and the reader. This means creative integrity such as attribution of ideas and phrases. It also means internal honesty. The writer must find his voice and not mimic others. He must form thoughts and claim them, then honestly adjust or discard them over time as he learns.

Finally, a writer owes the reader growth. This, again, might not be visible in a single piece. But if one reads a particular writer over time there should be evidence of it. This means the writer must be a learner and a reader. A writer, while he must find his voice, must avoid ruts and redundancy.

In return for all this, the reader owes the writer as well. He owes the writer thoughtfulness, grace, patience, and the long view. He also owes the writer a few mulligans. He owes the writer the willingness to learn the difference between poor writing and writing he doesn’t like since, while they might be the same thing, they are not necessarily so.

And, especially in the internet age, the reader owes the writer the willingness to simply not read something he doesn’t like instead of reading and condemning. A writer opens himself up to criticism by writing, but he doesn’t ask for it (except for the thoughtful, interactive, and constructive kind). Neither does he demand that you suffer yourself to read his work if you can’t stand it, so rather than berate him for it just stop reading it. And if a writer consistently fails to uphold his end of the bargain, the reader owes it to the writer to walk away from his work and suggest to others that it might be wise to do the same.