I mean we need to think like a reader when we write, and think like a writer when we read. This is nothing new--I've heard it many times, and you probably have also. But it does make sense.
Through the eyes of a reader
Oddly enough, thinking like a reader while you're in the process of writing can be one of those things that's more fun than work. You as a fiction writer are a manipulator; your job is to pull the reader into your story and make him believe, at least for that period of time, the world you've created. For that reason, you have to eventually develop the ability to see the flow of the plot and the actions of the characters in the mind of the reader. If you don't, your readers won't follow the story at the intensity level or the rate that you want them to. They'll either (1) fail to understand what you're saying, (2) figure things out before they're supposed to, or (3) become bored with the whole matter. In any of these cases, and certainly number (3), they probably won't even be readers anymore--at least not your readers.
I have tried, over the years, to develop the knack of rereading what I've written in an earlier draft and seeing it as a first-time reader would see it. In other words, to make myself effectively ignore what I know is coming later and to picture the story only as a reader would at that point, page by page and paragraph by paragraph. I want to feel the anticipation generated in a proper opening, or the sudden threat of an evil reversal, or the joy of a positive twist, or the pure satisfaction of an "inevitable but unexpected" ending. I'm not always successful, but at least that's my goal.
If you can become successful at this kind of out-of-body evaluation of your work-in-progress, it can reveal plenty of things that you need to change or at least tweak in order to make your next draft more logical, believable, and suspenseful. If what happens in the story surprises and thrills you, it'll probably surprise and thrill the reader. And again, if it doesn't--well, you can catch it and fix it.
Through the eyes of a writer
Just as important, I think, is to be able to read the work of others as a writer as well as a reader. The next time you pick up a novel or a short story or sit down in front of a movie, try to put yourself in the mind of the writer. Why does he or she start things out that way? How did he choose his POV character? What does he do to draw you into the world--and the dilemma--of the protagonist? How does he make you feel such dislike for the villain(s)? How does he make you so interested in what will happen next?
I believe we should also watch for things we don't like in a piece of fiction. If something doesn't work, why doesn't it? I see that as a way to turn the mistakes of others into a learning exercise. If you hate the way such-and-such was handled in the story you're reading, analyze it and resolve not to make that error in your own fiction. (As I've said in earlier columns, I don't encourage writers to seek out substandard novels or movies--but if you happen to find yourself in the middle of one, try to figure out why it's so bad.) In the words of the wise doctor, "If that hurts, don't do it."
Funny thing: Finding and taking note of mistakes in a story is often easier than taking note of the positives. Why? Because if a book or short story or film is well done, we as readers or viewers are drawn so completely into its fantasy world that we don't notice the process. We get to the end, catch our breath as if we've been on a rollercoaster, and think Whoa, that was fun! In those cases, consider rereading parts of the story, or at least think back over the plotline to try to recall the details. If it was a movie, rent or replay the DVD. The truth is, the more you keep this evaluation process in mind, the more you'll eventually get to the point of studying all stories, well-done or poorly-done, even as you read or watch them. And--this is comforting to know--it doesn't lessen the enjoyment of the experience. I loved Stephen King's recent novel Mr. Mercedes, and while reading it I was aware at every moment of WHY this story was working as well as it was, for me. Will I now be able to write as well as the King? Of course not. But I might've learned things that'll make me a better writer than I was before.
Do you find yourself consciously using either of these two "approaches" to better writing? Do you write with the reader always in mind? Do you look for the good and bad points in the work of others, and try to learn from them?
I hope I do. I try to.
Now I need to go read some more stories…