The Contract with Your Reader

Thursday, May 24, 2018
It doesn’t matter what you write or who your reader is. If you write for anyone other than yourself, you have a contract with your reader. Your reader approaches your work with a certain expectation based on the genre you are writing, the description of your work and even your title. Deliver or risk losing your reader.


Every genre has conventions so, judging by genre, readers approach your work with certain expectations. A mystery will have an unanswered question. A cozy mystery will probably have a murder but readers won’t “see” it take place.

Nonfiction is factual. Everything, from dialogue to details, can be found in one or more sources. Facts are not altered to create a more dramatic story because, if they are, readers who love factual writing will feel cheated.

If I submit a novel and describe it as a romance, agents and publishers will expect certain things. The protagonist is wildly attracted to someone but they can only be together if they overcome certain obstacles. If there is no attraction, I will have broken my contract with the reader. The best I will be able to hope for is a rejection letter.


How do you describe your work in your cover or query letter? While you don’t want to give too much away, you have to be honest with your reader. This means that once again, you have to know the conventions for a romance, a fantasy or a middle grade novel.

But your summary also has to be accurate. If you tell me that everyone on Earth disappears and one couple has to find out why, I have three expectations. 1. They are not from Earth because everyone from Earth has vanished. 2. There is something huge at risk that hinges on finding out what happened. 3. They have a reasonable chance of figuring this out.

Otherwise? I’ll relax with someone else’s work next time.


Last but not least, your title has to be accurate. The Secret of the Mummy’s Curse needs to involve a secret, a mummy and a curse. I know, I know. The writer doesn’t always have the final say in their title.

But when a book club reads The Bad Ass Librarians of Lichtenstein, it doesn’t matter how fascinating the history is. If the bad assery belongs to the teens the librarians recruit and not the librarians themselves? I will still be hearing about how inaccurate your title was months later because there are two librarians in this particular book club.

Genre, description, title. They all form a contract with the reader. As a writer, your goal is to keep that reader reading, not give them an excuse to put your work aside for housework, grading, or, worse yet, the work of another writer.


To find out more about Sue Bradford Edwards' writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.  Sue is also the instructor for Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins July 9th, 2018.


Angela Mackintosh said...

Great advice, Sue! I was just listening to a podcast interview with an author the other day (and I can't remember who it was because I listened to several in a row while walking) but when asked for her best piece of writing advice, she said to actually think about your reader while you write.

I'm glad you included the title in your list because that's one of my pet peeves. I've noticed titles that appear to be an afterthought, when really, they are the first thing a reader notices. I'll also add that the beginning of a piece sets the tone for the whole and usually includes some kind of promise, a question, a problem, or an idea of what the story will be about, which hopefully, the writer will come back around to. I've done it myself when writing without knowing it! Beta readers will say, "I thought you were going to talk about this..." when I had no idea I'd set it up that way. It's good to have beta readers. :)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Titles are just so tricky. Don't hit at something that isn't there. Don't give too much away. It is like walking a high wire.

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