Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth.
Why is that important for people who aren’t readers of Victorian novels, or English majors or those who follow literary history?
Well, apart from his being one of the greatest writers in the English language (alongside such other Victorian giants as George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, Charlotte Bronte and Anthony Trollope), Dickens was one of the first writers to build a platform for his work. And to engage with his audience in a particularly modern way.
Sure, Dickens didn’t have the Internet. But, having started his writing career as a court reporter and journalist, he knew how important it was to stay in touch with an audience of eager readers. And the world was rich with all sorts of journals, daily rags, fine magazines, all sorts of ways for writers to get the word out (the overload of information isn’t solely a modern-day phenomenon).
Dickens originally published many of his works in serial form, in monthly installments, ending each chapter or episode with a form of cliffhanger. Kind of the fictional equivalent of the call-to-action you find at the end of many blog posts, which encourage you to comment. Only in Dickens’ case, you were compelled to buy the next installment to see what was going to happen. It helped spur sales of each series of chapters.
But this way of writing – almost up to the moment before publication – proved beneficial in another way. According to a study of Dickens’s working methods, he valued and reacted to the opinions of his readers – and this installment form of publication permitted readers to voice their opinion while Dickens was in the middle of working out a novel. He sometimes altered the story depending on what the public reaction was.
Sounds a lot like what many authors do nowadays, refining their voice and strengthening their message as they interact with their audience.
You may not be writing fiction, but being in touch with your tribe is a great way to ensure continuing feedback and a continuing audience for the work you are writing, the book you are creating, the message you are sending. Take it from Dickens.