Image: Matthew Loffhagen
When you see the words ‘reader trust’, it’s pretty obvious what they mean. When a reader approaches a new work they have no way to know that they’ll enjoy it. In fact, they have no way to know that it’s something they won’t find boring, offensive, or even distressing. Part of consuming art is taking the chance and finding out, but part of becoming an author is building up a cache of trust that will keep readers returning to your work. They don’t know it’s good, they don’t know anything about it, but if you’ve built up reader trust, you’ve provided a degree of assurance to prospective readers.
That’s the upside. The downside of reader trust is that there’s danger in both ignoring it and treating it like a naturally occurring resource. If you’re not conscious of reader trust, you can lose it, and readers who feel their trust has been betrayed will be evangelical about denigrating your work.Betray your reader’s trust and you just created your most committed critic.Click To Tweet
That’s why, in this article, I’ll be talking about reader trust; how authors gain it, how it applies to different parts of their writing and career, and how to avoid losing it. Let’s get started.
Why you need to care about reader trust
Authors know their own intentions, beliefs, and goals, but that knowledge can blind them as to how their art is received by readers who don’t know their intimate thoughts. When an author appreciates this, they can find ways to more clearly articulate what they’re trying to say, but when they assume their credentials are clear to everyone involved, problems start to occur.
The obvious example is a writer who believes their political or social opinion will be clear to the reader. Authors who parody sexism or racism, for example, often depend on the idea that the reader will trust that they are not sexist or racist, and thus understand the parody for what it is. That trust isn’t automatic, though, and a writer who fails to engender trust in the reader that they then rely on can easily be misread, often with disastrous results.
This doesn’t just apply to the content of your work, but to the way you write it, your authority in writing it, and even your decision to write it in the first place. Non-fiction, and especially instructional, writers in particular need to consider whether the reader trusts them to speak on a topic. There’s a reason multiple authors have adopted a ‘Dr.’ prefix they haven’t quite earned; it’s an easy, immediate way to invite the reader’s trust.
Assessing reader trust
It’s important to consider what reader trust you’re relying on in your work. Is your book a vast epic? That might work, but is there a specific reason the reader will make such a big time investment in your first project? Is your blurb amazing, has your advertising campaign been beyond belief, is your premise immediately gripping, have you offered the first chapter online for free to entice them? If not, do some of those things need to be true for your book to succeed?Where are you asking the reader to trust you? Find out, and don’t take it for granted.Click To Tweet
Likewise, ask whether you’re writing with an attitude that you need the reader to understand and value. Like those authors parodying racism or sexism earlier, it’s easy for a reader to get the wrong idea about what you’re saying. That’s not to say that you have to clarify your basic philosophies or ideology in your writing – many stories benefit from the reader drawing their own conclusions – but your intent won’t always be as clear as you think it is.
Nick Spencer’s Secret Empire was met with incredibly contentious reader reaction, and a large part of that was distrust engendered by his previous work. Spencer had arguably struggled with certain themes in earlier projects, and readers came to his new project distrustful both of his intent and his ability to deliver on his themes without causing accidental harm. Since Secret Empire dealt with the role of fascist, even neo-Nazi, ideology in a beloved and long-running franchise, the stakes were high for Spencer’s ability to say what he was trying to say, and many readers were left intensely disappointed by a work that didn’t do enough to assuage their distrust. (It’s worth noting that the furore over Spencer’s Secret Empire went far beyond the acceptable; while Spencer’s handling of his readership’s trust is the useful takeaway for this article, it’s certainly no justification for the extreme vitriol to which he was subjected.)
As you begin a project, ask what perspective you’re bringing to it, and then ask how the reader is meant to perceive that perspective. Plenty of cringe-worthy books have been written on the back of the idea that most readers will share the opinion of the author. They don’t, and the assumption that they do doesn’t just create a book some people won’t enjoy, but a book that will be confusing to many of its readers.
Gaining reader trust
One of the easiest ways to gain reader trust is through consistent artistry. Stephen King has written some vast tomes in his time, but he also writes consistently engaging stories, meaning that his readers approach his longer works with faith that their time will be well spent. The same is often true of the philosophy you bring to your work; the first-time writer writing an obvious parody of sexist attitudes may just come off as sexist, but the author who has written several works with a nuanced and reasonable approach to gender can expect more benefit of the doubt.
Beware: the same can be true for less admirable trends. Playwright Martin McDonagh has come under increasing criticism for his depiction of black characters, not because of any one project, but because of patterns some critics point to in his body of work. Whatever McDonagh’s intent, a slow erosion of trust has occurred over his career. Unattended, such erosion leaves writers in a place where their work is read in a new context, which can in turn increase the sense of distrust.
That’s not to say that you should only tackle challenging topics once you’re established, but it does mean that if you’re just starting out and you want the reader to appreciate where you’re coming from, it can be beneficial to show them. This may mean adding or tweaking a scene, or even being more explicit about what you’re saying, but it helps firm up the reader’s perception of your writing.Sometimes, you have to be clear about where you stand.Click To Tweet
The key to gaining reader trust is remembering that readers are naturally sceptical. Few readers enter a new book with endless trust in their hearts, and those that do are usually drawing from what they already know: an author’s reputation or the book’s blurb and cover. The reader not only doesn’t trust you, but if they’ve only just encountered your work, they’re trying to figure you out. If you ignore that fact, you begin from a place of basic misunderstanding, and that can cause problems.
Losing reader trust
Losing reader trust is easy, especially because trust isn’t a purely intellectual experience. If the reader loses faith in you, they don’t just lack trust, they’ve gained distrust. That gut feeling we have about people doesn’t necessarily leave just because the cause has been addressed; the podcaster who says something stupid then corrects themselves doesn’t shift their listener back into a neutral opinion, they invite the disdain of having said it in the first place.
The worst form of this comes when a reader feels their trust has been betrayed. Depending on your copy, you’ll find Dave Barry’s debut novel Big Trouble emblazoned with some of the most impressive recommendations going.
The funniest book I’ve read in fifty years.
– Elmore Leonard
I laughed so hard I fell out of a chair… the funniest damn thing I’ve read in almost forty years.
– Stephen King
Dave Barry remains one of the funniest writers alive. Big Trouble is outrageously warped, cheerfully depraved – and harrowing close to true life.
– Carl Hiaasen
That is some notably unequivocal praise from some noteworthy writers. A reader spotting those recommendations couldn’t be blamed for developing a healthy sense of trust towards Barry’s writing, trust that would be likely to curdle as soon as they hit the introduction.
I am very lucky to have, as friends, some wonderful novelists who were generous enough to share their wisdom with me when I actually started writing this book and discovered that I had no idea what the plot was. I especially want to thank Carl Hiaasen… as well as Stephen King, Elmore Leonard…
– Dave Barry, Big Trouble
Here, Barry makes it abundantly clear that the amazing references on his cover came from close friends, potentially invalidating the mountain of trust he just established and making the reader feel foolish, or at least suspicious. It’s not that Barry shouldn’t have used the references (his friends might be biased, but they’re still being honest), or that he shouldn’t have included his famous friends in the introduction, but that’s he’s paid no attention to how the two will interact or the final experience that creates for the reader. Following on from this old boys’ club impression, Barry discusses his process in more detail.
Neil was always supportive and has given me excellent advice, so I forgive him for the fact that he never told me, back at the beginning, that I would need to come up with characters and a plot… [My friends were helpful when] I actually started writing this book and discovered that I had no idea what the plot was… [My friends] told me not to worry too much about the plot at the beginning, except Ridley, who is extremely organized… I enjoyed writing it. Once I figured out what the plot was, I mean.
– Dave Barry, Big Trouble
It’s clear that Barry is being humorous here, even if there’s some truth in his statement, but having just recontextualized the reader’s trust that his work will be great, this further threatens their faith in his work. Barry treats the reader as a chum, but they’re not: they’re someone deciding whether this book is going to be worth their time, and Barry’s introduction takes their involvement as a given.
The problem here isn’t that the reader will dislike Barry, the introduction is personable enough, but that he invites them to distrust his plot. The reader enters the book with the assumption that the plot was an afterthought, a vehicle for the characters, and the story suffers from the scrutiny.Inviting the reader’s distrust can affect your text in unexpected ways.Click To Tweet
Barry’s example shows how easy it is for authors to lose reader trust. Barry didn’t need to talk down his own work and tarnish the objectivity of his recommendations; in fact, the introduction as a whole doesn’t really add anything to the reader’s experience. Nevertheless, Barry took the reader’s faith as such a given that not only does he fail to establish it, he goes to work dismantling what’s already there, pointing out areas in which the reader can’t trust him as an author. The resultant work is lessened by the distrust Barry casually creates in his introduction – that’s how easy it is to do.
The thrust of trust
Reader trust isn’t automatic, and it’s easily lost. As you edit a project, be conscious of where you’re expecting the reader to trust you. If you’ve earned that trust already, great, but if not, consider what you can do to either create it or ensure it isn’t necessary. As the author, you’re in control of your work, and that means you’re able to set up moments that establish your authority, underlying ideology, or the validity of the project. Does you book need an introduction (or to lose one)? Is there an early incident you can use to encapsulate your viewpoint? Is there something you can do outside your book, such as offering early chapters for free, to engender trust? Answer these questions and you may be surprised by the options open to you.
Finally, this is an aspect of writing where beta readers really come into their own, especially if you’ve hunted down people who don’t necessarily share your worldview or assumptions.
In what areas are you asking the reader to trust you and where have you been asked to trust authors in the past? Let me know in the comments, and check out You Need To Ask “Sez Who?” Before Your Reader Gets The Chance and How To Stop Your Opinion Taking Center-stage In Your Writing for more advice on this topic.