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Mark Twain claimed that, before he ever published a book, he would “always read the manuscript to a private group of friends, composed as follows:
1. Man and a woman with no sense of humor.
2. Man and a woman with a medium sense of humor.
3. Man and a woman with prodigious sense of humor.
4. An intensely practical person.
5. A sentimental person.
6. Person who must have a moral in, and a purpose.
7. Hypercritical person—natural flaw-picker and fault-finder.
8. Enthusiast—person who enjoys anything and everything, almost.
9. Person who watches others, and applauds or condemns with the majority.
10. Half a dozen bright young girls and boys, unclassified.
11. Person who relishes slang and familiar flippancy.
12. Person who detests them.
13. Person of evenly-balanced judicial mind.
14. Man who always goes to sleep.
“These people represent the general public. Their verdict is the sure forecast of the verdict of the general public. There is not a person among them whose opinion is not valuable to me; but the man whom I most depend upon—the man whom I watch with the deepest solicitude—the man does most toward deciding me as to whether I shall publish the book or burn it, is the man who always goes to sleep. If he drops off within fifteen minutes, I burn the book; if he keeps awake three-quarters of an hour, I publish—and I publish with the greatest confidence, too. For the intent of my works is to entertain; and by making this man comfortable on a sofa and timing him, I can tell within a shade or two what degree of success I am going to achieve” (from Who Is Mark Twain?)
Who is our audience? While the notion of “art for art’s sake” certainly has its place, at some point writers must ask themselves what they really hope to accomplish by putting words on paper. If you’re writing fiction (be it a potboiler or more serious “literary fiction”), the story had better be engaging, otherwise you’ll likely lose your readers before you’ve begun.
The same is true for non-fiction. Although the purpose of your writing could be simply telling a true story or providing information, there are effective and ineffective ways of doing this. Historical writing, for example, often lands somewhere on the extremes of the audience-engagement spectrum: either it’s a compelling narrative that breathes life into figures from the past, or it’s as dead as Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones.
So remember Twain’s analogy, and no matter what we are writing, let’s all try to keep that drowsy fellow on the sofa awake.
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