While I write, and particularly while I'm editing, at the forefront of my process are the following questions:
What do I want the reader to feel?
This may seem a contradiction to my statement above, but don't all writers seek to move their readers? Don't comedy writers try to make their readers laugh? Erotica writers seek to turn their readers on? Romance writers hope to make their readers feel loved, or perhaps feel hope for love? Horror writers to scare, drama writers to move a reader to tears?
The natural outgrowth of that hope is to study one's writing, and constantly ask yourself:
What is the reader's impression here?
Can you step back and read your scene as if you knew nothing about the story, the characters, or what's going to happen? Can you experience your story as a first-time reader?
If so, what is their first impression? What is the reader seeing? What do they know? More importantly, what does the reader not know? Does the information unfold with the right timing?
Perhaps most importantly, how does this make a reader feel? Of course, every reader is going to feel differently, but if your goal is to make someone laugh, are you making it sound funny? If your goal is to surprise, have you paced it effectively?
The rhythm of our words and sentences create an experience for the reader. In general, long, flowing sentences are unlikely to make a reader sit on the edge of her seat. Short, choppy sentences speed things up. They create a quicker pace, a breathless feel. Short paragraphs speed things up, longer ones slow things down.
Take my rhythm above. Every word, every sentence, is a choice:
How does your experience reading "They create a quicker pace, a breathless feel." differ from your experience reading "They create a quicker pace and a breathless feel."?
(And help! How the heck should I punctuate that sentence?)
Just like background music heightens the emotional experience of a movie, the rhythm of your words create "background music" that should match and amplify the emotional experience of your story.
Like I said before, I can't know the answers to these questions. I can't possibly step into each and every reader's shoes. In the end, I probably only know myself as a reader, and hope there are enough similar readers in the world who will connect with my stories.
Still, if I seek to move readers with my stories and words, then I have to put myself in their shoes and try to experience my fiction as they do.
So I keep editing, keep practicing, until their experience is as close as possible to the experience I'm trying to create.
You? What do you think? How and when do you think of the reader? What questions do you ask yourself? How do you get into your readers' shoes?