Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

“Read Like an Editor: Understanding Your Reader” with Harold Underdown Notes 1/8/23

Harold discussed Reader Response Theory and how understanding it will help authors and illustrators when writing and revising as well as inform them on what most editors look for in a manuscript. Harold invited participants to submit 3 pages of a work in progress. He chose a few manuscripts for participants to respond to using the R.R. theory. Harold then showed how emotional responses will help the writer know what’s working and where to revise.

What is Reader Response Theory?

  • • It’s an approach to understanding reading.
  • • Every reader actively engages with a story and has their own response to it. Their prior experiences help them engage. If they can’t engage, they walk away.
  • • When talking about manuscripts, we often discuss the craft: plot, characterization, voice, and point of view. But readers aren’t thinking about • craft. They’re bringing their feelings and experience to what they’re reading.
  • • Text sparks response. You can’t control everyone’s response, but you can aim for a target response.
  • • How we react changes as we age because of experience.
  • • Children bring different needs and developmental issues to the stories they’re reading, and those affect how they respond.
  • • Readers come to your book with assumptions, expectations, and needs. The reader (editor/child) isn’t coming to your book cold. They know something already about your book through title, cover, query letter, blurb, etc.

Practicing Reader Response Theory

  • • Harold read a few pages of Ezra Jack Keats’ Snowy Day. Attendees identified their emotional responses. They could feel Peter’s excitement even though the author didn’t state Peter’s feeling. Through the pictures and minimal text, they knew Peter was happy.
  • • The group also practiced with the following: Picture Books – The Bear Ate Your Sandwich, Will It Be Okay?, The Right Word – Roget and His Thesaurus. Chapter Book – Ivy and Bean. Middle Grade – We Dream of Space, Holes.
  • • We continued with work submitted by attendees.

Writing Craft and Emotions are Connected

  • • If you praised structure of the plot, you’ve been swept along.
  • • If you reacted strongly to a character, the author wrote that character well.
  • • If you marvel at the worldbuilding, you can imagine yourself there.


  • • How they read a manuscript is informed by the understanding of how children read.
  • • They’re looking for those feelings and kid-like experiences.
  • • They want to feel something themselves and be engaged by the story.
  • • They want to acquire stories they’ve connected to emotionally that aren’t just well-crafted.

What Authors Need to Consider

  • • Keep true to a child’s viewpoint, and leave room for the reader.
  • • The feelings of the character are brought into the story by the reader through their own personal experiences and connections. This makes the story come alive for them.
  • • If you spell things out too much, you don’t give the child reason to fill in what you didn’t say. It’s what you didn’t say that pulls them in.
  • • In picture books, text must give enough of a story and make emotional sense. Text suggests images. Before acquiring, an editor thinks about possibilities for the illustrator. The author tells, the illustrator shows, and the reader feels. It all works together.
  • • Who’s your reader and what emotional response do you want from them? What aspects of story and ways to tell it will achieve that? How?
  • • How do you want to change the character’s feelings and then the reader’s feelings as the story progresses?
  • • Craft choices impact the reader. (How does choice of POV impact the reader? etc.)
  • • Whether it’s working will come down to the effect on the reader. E.g., MC starts curious but gets more anxious. Same for reader.
  • •Pacing, in this case, is what the writer does to get reader to experience those feelings.

Share Your Manuscript with a Critique Partner, Beta Reader, and Critique Group

  • • What was your reaction? Where were you most interested? Where did you lose interest? What made you laugh or cry? What made you excited or anxious?
  • • Do it with specific scenes or key moments, not just overall. You know what you’re trying to achieve in a scene or chapter.
  • • Individual responses help you see if you’ve achieved it. They aren’t child reactions, but it’s a step toward your goal.