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Who are you writing for, anyway?

As an emerging writer, I spend a decent amount of time seeking out and absorbing advice from established writers. Two of the most common tidbits I have come across in my trawling are:

  • Forget other people – write for yourself; and
  • Write as if your audience was anyone but yourself.

Now, I’m a dangerously impressionable thinker. I have a bad (but very human) habit of believing what I read, unless I have good reason to suspect the truth is otherwise. So being presented with two entirely contradictory pieces of advice has been vexing, to say the least.

Two ways of thinking about writing

The reasoning behind the first advice tends to be that if you don’t write something you would want to read, no one else will want to read it either. You can’t try to pander to what you think the masses want without abandoning both your artistic soul and, more prosaically, your unique voice as a writer.

That voice, your genuine voice, is what readers are looking for. If you try writing what you think someone else will want to read, rather than what you want to write, you’ll come across as a fake and lose readers’ interest. And, of course, if you aren’t writing stories you personally enjoy reading and thinking about, you’re going to hate the whole process.”Write for yourself” seems to be the more prevailing of the two wisdoms, counting among its proponents Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut.

Meanwhile, the arguments for option two tend to focus on making sure your writing is readable. As the author, you can never completely divorce yourself from the knowledge you have of your own text, so you need to think like a reader in order to see what a reader will get out of it – when they’ll be surprised, when they’ll be intrigued,and, most importantly, that they’ll understand what’s going on without your authorial knowledge.

Writing for yourself, this theory argues, is an exercise in navel-gazing – self-serving, self-aggrandising, but of no interest to anyone else. Prolific and highly-awarded author Jackie French, in a recent interview, is particularly draconian on this: “If you want to write for yourself,” she counsels, “write a diary. But when you write for other people, remember you are writing for them.”

So who should I write for?

Personally, I’ve always been a fan of the first advice. As a writer with anxiety and a bad habit of being hyper-critical of my own work, writing for myself is freeing.It doesn’t stop me from worrying about whether I like what I’m writing (half the time I don’t until several edits in), but it at least saves me from simultaneously worrying about whether anyone else will like it (at least until I send it out for beta reading). And based on my experience so far, it seems like what I enjoy writing lines up pretty well with what at least a subset of people enjoy reading.

If I’m being honest, I don’t really know how to write for any audience other than myself. I write from emotion. The things that inspire me bring curiosity and delight. The things that are important to me bring passion and sorrow and sometimes rage. These feelings are what drive me to write. I can’t fake that.

But on the other hand…

My most recent first draft is for a story that was born out of one of my rare moments of rage – a real fling-the-book-across-the-room tantrum in response to a certain fictional trope that I am just sick to death of. So I decided to write a story in refutation.

The passion worked well for drive: the words just flowed out of me. The more I wrote, the more personal it became – a real act of catharsis through fiction.It felt great – truly healing – to write. But when I got to the end, I suddenly found myself wondering, does this work as a story?

And I couldn’t tell. From where I stood, on the pinnacle of my catharsis, I had no idea whether anyone who wasn’t me would get any kind of emotional impact from this tale, or whether they would just find it rambling and shouty and strange.

I’ve put that story aside for now, because that’s a question I can’t answer from the pinnacle. I think it will need some major reworking, but I can’t determine what needs to be done until I’ve climbed down off my high horse and can look at my story from a less personal perspective.

And that, I think, is the meeting point of these two seemingly contradictory views.

Write for yourself, edit for your reader

I know that trying to write specifically to please any audience but myself is just going to confuse and frustrate me. My writing has to come from the heart – it has to bring me joy and sorrow and rage – or it will be boring to write and even more boring to read.

But part of what pleases me is honing my writing-craft, and that craft is about writing for a reader. Thinking about what will surprise or intrigue someone else. Thinking about when I want my pacing to draw the reader on or give them a moment to stop and think. Thinking about how to make sure someone who is not me understands what the heck is going on. None of that would matter if I was only writing for myself. You don’t edit a diary.

The same goes for blogging as for fiction. I started this post because I was frustrated about a seeming contradiction and wanted to try to make sense of it. But once I’d laid down my initial rant, I started thinking about how to make this post informative to a reader (e.g. researching all the links you see above). I spent time restructuring the piece to be clear and engaging to someone else (the order in which you’re reading this is nothing like the order in which I wrote it, because I write like a jumping bean on amphetamines).

If I leave my writing as a straight-from-the-heart, stream-of-consciousness blurt, it won’t satisfy a reader – and that won’t satisfy me, because I take pride in writing pieces that are (I hope) readable.

So the advice I would give is, write for yourself, but edit for your reader. And, of course, remember that every single writer finds different methods that work for them, so if you’re confused by contradictory advice then try things out and see what works for you.

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