When I first started working in publishing, I attended some of the excellent training courses at the Publishing Training Centre. An image that has stuck in my head ever since is a little like the angel and devil on your shoulder – except, for editors/proofreaders, it’s the author and the reader – I’ll leave you to determine whether that’s in any way analogous with angels and devils! However, this is key when ‘putting yourself in your reader’s shoes’.
The illustration the trainer used was this: when you sit down to edit, imagine that you have two people sitting on little clouds above you, whose needs you are trying to balance. For the author, you’re supporting them to convey exactly what they want to convey in their words with no obstacles to meaning or understanding. While for the reader, you’re supporting them to understand, engage with and hopefully enjoy what’s being conveyed.
Usually, editors/proofreaders are able to talk to authors – either directly or through a querying process on the manuscript/proofs – to check that they’ve understood what the author is trying to say. But we’re not so easily able to talk or listen to readers in this way.
So, what’s needed is a sensitivity to how readers will view, respond to and understand texts. To do this, editors need to ‘put themselves in the reader’s shoes’ to get a sense of how content and copy will be received. But how do we implement and practise this process of imagining how text looks from someone else’s perspective?
Here are my top five tips:
1. Identify and describe the target readership
Ask the client/author to explain this to you, and if they haven’t got a target audience in mind, help them to define this more clearly before you start work. By describing the audience, and checking that this description is correct and detailed enough, you can start to understand what’s needed during the editorial stages. For example, do the layout and structure need to be adjusted? Do you need to address choices of language, tone and cultural references? Read more about the editorial stages.
2. If possible, listen to someone (or a number of people) who could be your ideal reader
Do you know someone in the target audience? If so, ask them if they’d understand a given term, phrase or description. This is a great way to ‘put yourself in your reader’s shoes’. Test different pieces of text out on different people in your family, at a social occasion or on your friends’ WhatsApp group. Pay attention when you’re in the company of different people (either in person or virtually) such as those in different age groups or who have a different background to you. What words and phrases do they use? What language doesn’t land, either because it’s not understood or it’s disliked? What methods of communication do they like to use?
This should be an exercise in active listening, putting aside your own opinions or thoughts for the moment, in order to be able to hear and absorb more clearly what’s going on for the other person.
3. Pretend to be the reader
Try to imagine that you are the ideal reader, and think about some key questions. Where and how are you reading this (in print, on screen, at leisure or in a hurry)? What do you like and dislike? What do you know already and what information is new/might need further explanation? What’s important to you (what are your values)? Use the answers to guide the layout, presentation, language and tone.
4. Read more fiction, preferably literary fiction
Here’s another excuse to read more novels – in case you need one! A psychology research study conducted in 2006 demonstrated that reading more fiction was associated with better performance in empathy and social acumen tests. The study lead explained that, as fiction is an exploration of the human experience, it allows us to practise what it might feel like to be in someone else’s head (or shoes)! Furthermore, a 2013 paper in Science assigned different genres to groups in the study and found that the group that showed most improvement in the empathy test were those assigned to read literary fiction.
5. Make a note of your findings for next time
If you’re going to be working on multiple pieces for the same author/client, be sure to make a note of their ideal reader ‘persona’ and appropriate language and tone choices. This can be in an informal set of notes for your own use – but I’d advise turning this into a more formal and agreed editorial style and tone of voice guidance which your author/client can continue to use.
Leap into your reader’s shoes to improve your editing and proofreading by:
- Identifying the target reader/audience
- Listening to people in your target readership
- Pretending to be the ideal reader
- Reading more good novels
- Writing down the target reader persona
WikiHow, 25 October 2022, ‘How to put yourself in other people’s shoes’.
Discover, 28 August 2020, ‘How reading fiction increases empathy and encourages understanding’.
Psychology Today, 4 January 2014, ‘Reading fiction improves brain connectivity and function’.