Audience Considerations

This week, I’m thinking about audience as I revise my teacher resource book. Teachers are a new audience for me and I?m grateful for the editor for this project, who has lots of experience with teachers. Oh, I get aggravated when she sends back a section–yet, again–for a couple of minor fixes. Yet, I am also thankful that she is being so picky, because I know it will make a huge difference in how the book does in the marketplace. In that vein, I wonder why more of us don?t read our stories aloud to kids, as part of the revision process.

TV researches audience reactions

The traditional advice you hear is that editors don’t care if you’ve read this story to kids or not. It doesn’t make a difference in how they perceive the story, nor any difference in whether or not they will offer a contract. OTOH, Malcom Gladwell, in his book, Image from Amazon Image from Amazon
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Or the Spanish version: El Punto Clave (The Tipping Point. How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference) by Malcolm Gladwell, Ines Belaustegui), talks about research that children’s television programs do before they air a program. Blues Clues did field work (checking their stories/programs against kids’ reactions). They researched not only the clues that were given each day, but the order of the clues.

Why don’t authors track audience reaction?

Why don’t children’s fiction writers run their stories by kids, too? Again, I think it’s that traditional advice that it’s not only unnecessary, but–to some extent–foolish. Nonsense! Donna Jo Napoli reads aloud from her current works-in-progress where ever she goes. When I saw her, she was reading from the drafts for Image from Amazon
Ugly (co-written with Lita Judge). Every novel she’s written has been read aloud to an audience of kids. She is mostly listening to the voice as she reads aloud, and not so much the kids? responses directly as indirectly. She tries to notice when and where kids tune out. So, she’s paying attention to body language mostly. When do kids sit back, look around, yawn–basically do anything except sit on the edge of their seats!

My experiment with audience

A friend and I recently read our works aloud to a real audience of kids to see what we would learn. (If Donna Jo Napoli recommends it, we thought it was worth a try, despite what editors might say!) It was fascinating. The process was simple. I read my story myself to a group of sixth grade students in a language arts class. My friend had the teacher read it, so she could watch the kids from the side. I enjoyed reading the story, because I had the copy in my hand and could put a check mark beside a troublesome spot as I went. OTOH, if I was following along when a teacher read it, I could make more extensive notes. The kids discussed a bit afterwards. Some observations on the process:

  • For me, it’s hard to edit voice this way. I know how it should sound and can make it sound that way. A few times there were rough spots, but not much. It goes so fast, and I’m concentrating on READING, so I can’t two-track it and pay attention to voice, too.
  • The real value, for me, was in what the kids said after, in other words, getting back in touch with what sixth graders are like. For example, the story I read aloud was a fantasy quest, with the main characters leaving home for an adventure. Several days, I asked what the kids expected to happen next. Almost unanimous, the kids expected the characters to eventually return home. Even sixth graders value the security of their home. Adventures? OK. But take me home at the end of it.
  • I had expected that they were thinking about growing up, leaving home, getting ready for that teenage rebellion. No. Maybe seventh graders would have that attitude, but not sixth graders.
  • I did make revisions after each read-aloud session based on feedback. Some days, it was big changes and other times minor.
  • It takes a huge time commitment to read an entire novel aloud to kids. Wow, it took time. I had to be consistent in going in, so the kids wouldn’t forget the story. Even going twice a week, it took about six weeks. I haven’t repeated the experience, mainly because of the time commitment. But I’d like to do it again this fall. (OK, DB, don’t hold me to that!)
  • It’s an experience I’d recommend everyone do at least once! You do need to keep your audience firmly in mind.
  • However, when you send in the mss, don?t mention that you did this. Now, you must keep firmly in mind that editors still look askance at the usefulness of the experience. Regardless of editors’ opinions, though, from this author’s point-of-view, it was valuable experience. Try it!