Image: Matthew Loffhagen
There’s a question that every author has to face eventually, and it’s one to which they either have the perfect answer or none at all. That question is “Sez who?”, and if you can answer it before your reader even asks, you’ll have massively improved any project, whether it’s memoir, fiction, or even your pitch to a publisher.
What does “Sez who?” mean?
“Sez who?” is, of course, just “Says who?” with a little more attitude. It’s a request for an authoritative source – a challenge to convince the speaker because (and here’s the vital part) they’re not just going to take your word for it.
If it sounds a little aggressive, that’s because it is, and here’s where lots of authors go wrong. Many readers aren’t just waiting for the author to prove their skills, they’re actively skeptical. They need to be convinced on multiple levels: that this book is worth their time, that this story will make sense, that these characters are worth being around, that the writing is smooth and convincing, that the next book over isn’t going to do more for them. This is something that playwright Stephen Gregg points out when advising against replicating real-life banter on the stage.
The amusing transcribed-from-your-friends banter you think will translate to stage, won’t. You add affection, the audience adds skepticism.
— Stephen Gregg (@playwrightnow) October 10, 2016
Too often, authors assume that they have a position of absolute authority with the reader. This is their world, so anything they say is fact. The problem is that writing is actually a collaborative process; the reader isn’t a willing hostage, they’re a tentative partner. They’ll suspend their disbelief if you ask them to, but only once they’re sure you’re going to justify the effort.
“Sez who?” is a dangerous question because it indicates that the reader is already losing faith. In the ideal situation, this question is asked and addressed in the same beat, forming a subconscious process that the reader either doesn’t register, or appreciates only as an immediate sense of satisfaction. In the early stages of the reader-writer partnership, there are two ways to answer this question, and I’ll move on to them in a moment. Once the partnership exists, though, the only real answer is “Me”.“Sez who?” is a dangerous question – the reader is already losing faith.Click To Tweet
The author needs to build up enough authority that the reader can happily accept this answer – that it fits into the subconscious process where they’re not even conscious of asking. To get there, however, you need to get past those early stages.
The early stages of “Sez who?”
“Sez who?” is a request for authority, but it’s also a response to a certain kind of statement – a declaration. Authors sometimes need to make declarations; grand claims that they want the reader to accept as a foundation for a moment, story, or character. For example, a sci-fi author might need to make the declaration, “Time is relative.”
“Sez who?” asks a skeptical reader.
“Sez Einstein,” replies the author and, if they have even a shred of credibility and can perhaps elaborate a little on the ‘how’ and ‘why’, the reader’s question has been answered. A convincing source says so, they’ve shown their working, and the book will continue under the assumption that everyone now accepts this fact.
This is a blunt way to deal with “Sez who?”, but it’s often necessary and can sometimes work. This can operate on several levels. Sci-fi is a good example because the ‘sci’, the science, is an integral part of propping up the ‘fi’, the fiction. Author and reader have to agree on the facts, and quickly, so they can move on to the fun parts. This necessity shapes how readers approach the genre, and it’s far more acceptable for a sci-fi author to quickly make a declaration about science and back it up with some name dropping than it is in other genres.
“Sez who?” can even apply to author credibility; there are plenty of readers who go out of their way to find authors who are genuine experts first and wordsmiths second, whether they’re ex-special forces or used to work for NASA. Never mind that other authors might write better prose and have carried out in-depth research – these readers want authority.If the reader wants to check your sources, make sure they like what they find.Click To Tweet
This is the first way to reply to “Sez who?” – directly, and with an authority. The upside is that it clears things up immediately, but the downside is that it doesn’t breed much good will. If the goal is to make “Me” an unspoken but acceptable answer, this method doesn’t make much headway towards it. It tends to fix “Sez who?” as a question the reader should keep asking, and while authors can build on having the answer, it maintains the adversarial nature of the challenge.
More effective is simply to avoid making early declarations, or rather to avoid pitching declarations in a way that invites a “Sez who?” from the reader. The good news is that this corresponds with perhaps the most common piece of advice for authors: “Show, don’t tell.”
I won’t dive too deep into that phrase here, you can check out “Show, Don’t Tell” – What It Means And How To Do It for that, but suffice to say that it’s about letting the reader feel like they’ve discovered something, rather than trying to teach it to them in a single moment. Declarations (at least those made by the author, rather than a character) are used to do the latter. Consider, for example, the below.
Graff considered sharing the beans, but he didn’t want to set the precedent. Humans were inherently selfish; give them an inch and they’d take a mile.
Graff considered sharing the beans, but he didn’t want to set the precedent. If he got a reputation for charity in the good times, he could expect to be the first target when things went bad.
In both extracts, the author is making declarations, but the first is far more likely to invite a “Sez who?” response. It’s a big, sweeping generalization that applies directly to the reader and their world. It sets up a binary response – either the reader accepts it’s true of their own world or they reject the author’s authority. Some will agree, some won’t, but no-one was persuaded. This differs in the example below.
Graff considered sharing the beans, but he didn’t want to set the precedent. Yes, things were good now, but what would a charitable reputation in the good times mean when things once again turned bad?
Here, the author asks a question of the reader. It may feel like this should involve more skepticism – the reader is actually being asked what they think, after all – but it actually gives the reader less to push against. They may still disagree with the conclusion the author wants them to reach, but not so directly and absolutely that they reject the author’s authority.
This is the second way to dodge “Sez who?” in the early stages – edit with an eye on avoiding reader-writer confrontation. Don’t throw any huge declarations their way, but show them how your world works, convincing them by letting them come to their own conclusions.
You can, of course, merge these methods, as in the final example below.
Graff considered sharing the beans, but he didn’t want to set the precedent. He’d seen it happen before – Old Egon had always been generous with his supplies, but gratitude had quickly become expectation and, when the stores inevitably ran low, resentment.
Here, the writer doesn’t make a grand declaration, but they do invite the reader to draw a specific conclusion. They even offer a low-level authority, citing not just the character’s theory of the world, but their lived experience of it. Here’s the theory, here’s the proof, but delivered in such a way that the reader doesn’t feel confronted. This is the sort of writing that persuades a reader that the author knows what they’re talking about – the evidence that justifies giving “Me” as your eventual and satisfactory answer.
Avoiding “Sez who?” when it matters
That’s how “Sez who?” works in prose, and how to avoid it, but it’s not the only place where it matters. In one of his Masterclass lectures, James Patterson asked his students to send in summaries of the raw ideas behind their stories. One author begins their short summary with the statement, ‘Revenge is the deepest form of insanity, whether it is noticed or not.’ It’s a bold declaration, and Patterson balks at accepting it.
The language… ‘Revenge is the deepest form of insanity’. [Pulls face] It’s a little, the phrasing is a little odd, and says who? … It would take great writing for this to be worthwhile.
– James Patterson, ‘Critique – Raw Ideas Assignment’
The intention behind this declaration seems to be two-fold – first, to imply significant insight into the human condition and second, to characterize the story as dealing with an incredibly important topic – not just insanity, but its deepest form.
If you agree, the author has grabbed you and established themselves as an authority, but if you disagree (or just aren’t completely sold) the relationship is blown to smithereens. Now, as the reader, you’re firmly entrenched in an antagonistic relationship with the writer, questioning the validity of everything they say and growing irritated as they fail to address your doubts.
The reason this example is particularly worth considering is that it’s the first line of a short ‘pitch’. In the lecture preceding this task, Patterson says that one of the tests of such an idea is how the listener feels after hearing it – do they want to know more?
It’s not an unlucky coincidence that, asked to pitch their idea, this author falls back on an unsuccessful declaration that prompts a dismissive “Sez who?” In fact, many authors wheel out a declaration as their big hook. It’s tempting because it delivers their thesis in a bold, engaging way, but yet again, it misunderstands the relationship between reader and writer, and that engagement is likely to be negative.“Sez who?” is especially deadly when it comes from an agent or publisher.Click To Tweet
Just as with a reader, you have to persuade a publisher or agent to join you for an experience. You can’t force them to accept your primacy or authority, and that’s what a declaration is designed to do. Instead, try asking a question, or at least substantiating your declaration with one of the techniques used above. If your potential reader/publisher/agent feels like asking “Sez who?”, you haven’t beguiled them, but if the question fits, that probably wasn’t what you were trying to do in the first place.
If you must use declarations in a way that could invite a “Sez who?” response, try not to be too sweeping. Readers will accept the rules of your world far more easily if they’re not pitched as the rules of their world, too. Remember, also, that few people like being taught. That is, they love to learn, to use their observations to piece together knowledge, but not to be handed that knowledge by a self-proclaimed authority figure.
Applying “Sez who?”
The easiest way to avoid your reader consciously asking, “Sez who?” is to ask it yourself. Train yourself to react to big declarations with this immediate challenge and then assess your answer. Is it good enough for a skeptical reader? Even then, is it an answer you need to give, or can you rewrite to avoid the confrontation?
Wherever possible, prompt conclusions rather than providing them, and try to soften your provision of sources and authorities. Above all, remember that a potential reader is a tentative partner you’re trying to win around. Declarations are all about ‘I’, but you’re trying to create a solid sense of ‘we’ as a foundation for really getting into their head and creating a world that feels real. Looking for “Sez who?” moments when editing will help you do just that.
Has this article reminded you of any “Sez who?” moments you’ve found in existing works, or avoided in your own? Let me know in the comments below. Or, for more great advice, check out “Show, Don’t Tell” – What It Means And How To Do It and 5 Things You Need To Know Before Pitching Your Book.