Who Should You Be Writing For? Yourself or Your Readers?

Whom Should You Be Writing For? Yourself or Your Readers?

Whom should you be writing for? It’s a question all writers have to face sooner or later. Usually, we tend to think of the answer in terms of audiences: young adults, women 18-55, general adults, or super geeks of the sort to have read every back issue comic from the Silver Age. My simplest answer to this question is always: I’m writing for readers who have my exact taste in books.

So perhaps we should be asking a slightly more specific question: Should we be writing for ourselves? Or for our readers?

On its surface, this question may seem a little simplistic. After all, what’s it matter really? We’re going to be writing whether we’ve fully processed the answer or not.

But it does matter–for a lot of reasons. The biggest of those reasons is the simple fact that many of us have a rather interesting resistance to answering the question. We’re either writing for ourselves or for our readers–and we don’t like the startling fact that, just maybe, we would be better off doing both.

Whom Are You Writing For?

Take one second to answer that question.

Likely, you know the answer without even thinking about it. Maybe the answer is: I write for both myself and my readers. But probably you’re going to admit that, first and foremost, you write for one or the other.

I write for myself. I always have. I would write if no one ever read my work. I shared my novels with hardly anyone until I was nearly twenty (at which point I’d already written four), and in some ways those early years remain some of the most precious of my writing life.

Don’t get me wrong: I adore my readers with fierce adoration. But I don’t write for them. I don’t need them in order to be a writer. I would keep on writing even if the Internetz were fried and the Big Five (or however many are left these days) publishing houses in NYC crumbled into dust.

I used to think that was the only way to go. But there are lots of authors who don’t write for themselves. They write, first and foremost, for their readers. They would say, if there aren’t any readers, then what’s the point?

It’s basically the whole “if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it…” idea. These authors are pouring themselves into stories with the primary hope of blessing and entertaining others. That’s what fuels them, what keeps them going on the hard days.

Which approach is right? Which is wrong? Neither and neither. Or, actually, both.

creative inc ed catmull pixarIf you’re writing solely for yourself with no thought for the reader–or solely for the reader without tapping the purity and sincerity of your own artistic instincts–then your writing is bound to suffer. In Creative, Inc. (thank you, Marcy McKay!), Pixar president Ed Catmull notes:

Michael Arndt, who wrote Toy Story 3, says he thinks to make a great film, its makers must pivot, at some point, from creating the story for themselves to creating it for others…. “Part of the suffering involves giving up control,” he says. “I can think it’s the funniest joke in the world, but if nobody in that room laughs, I have to take it out. It hurts that they can see something you can’t.”

Whom Should You Be Writing For? Yourself or Your Readers?

Today, let’s consider the important benefits of incorporating both sides of this shift into your writing process.

7 Reasons You Should Be Writing for Yourself

Even if you happen to be one of those authors who writes primarily for others, your stories are still always going to be something deeply personal. How can they not be? They originate within you. They are you. And that’s the most poignant truth you can bring to any story.

Writing For Yourself…

1. Keeps the Art Pure

Art is about innovation. Art is about expression. Art is about personality. All that stuff comes from you. When you’re writing the story of your heart, you’re going to be tapping your true vision.  The closer you are to your own desires and instincts for a project, the purer the art will be.

2. Reduces Self-Censorship

When you start out writing for yourself, you’re the only person you have to please. You don’t have to worry about the criticisms you think others may throw your way for any number of reasons. If you’re not trying to bend to the desires of others, you’re going to be that much closer to the truth of the project.

3. Is Fun and Freeing

This is a big one for me. In the early moments of a story, it’s just me and the characters. The story world is my personal playground. I don’t have to worry about being smart, about being good, about pleasing anyone but myself. And that’s a blast!

4. Helps You Be Unique

Too often, when we’re aware of the presence of others looming over our shoulders during creation, we start trying to anticipate and fulfill their expectations. The results are often hackneyed and over-familiar. When we’re writing just for ourselves, we have more freedom to be creative pioneers, to experiment, to take risks and try out unexpected and interesting ideas.

5. Encourages Honesty

Remember that dream you had about going to work in your underwear? Writing for readers is like that–but it’s not a dream and it’s not your underwear you’re accidentally revealing, it’s your soul. Scary, yes? If you’re writing for yourself, you never have to worry about that. When you don’t feel the need to hide, the results are usually powerfully honest.

6. Taps Your Story Instincts

The most powerful resource any writer possesses is his own instincts. We know when something works–and when it doesn’t. But those instincts can get drowned out in the chatter and static of readers’ expectations. Ignore the expectations; embrace the instincts.

7. Is the Whole Point

After all, if you’re not walking this difficult road for reasons of unshakable personal passion and fulfillment, why in heaven’s name are you doing it?

6 Reasons You Should Be Writing for Your Readers

Ah, but then there’s the flip side. If you’re one of those writers who writes primarily because you want to be read, you’re not only tapping into a wider human experience, you’re also hyper-aware of the necessity of creating a great story that readers will actually want to read. You’re already on the track to taking your personal vision for a story and crafting it into something so effective it will touch not just its creator but countless other people as well.

Writing For Others…

1. Inspires You to Write a Better Story

Your story may be awesome, but if your writing isn’t, nobody else is going to want to experience it with you. If we’re going to connect with readers, we have to look beyond art to craft. We have to learn how to craft our artistic visions into stories so tight and so smart they perfectly convey our intent right into the minds of others.

2. Measures Your Skill, Effectiveness, and Progress

Writers stink at being objective about their own work. To us, it’s either all genius or all rubbish (sometimes both at the same time). But when we’re able to receive the objective reactions and feedback of readers, we gain an invaluable measuring rod against which to hone our raw instinct. We grow in our awareness of our skill, effectiveness, and progress.

3. Helps You Avoid Self-Indulgence

Don’t get me started on self-indulgent writers. In my estimation, it’s one of the worst sins any author can commit. Why? Because it shows a complete lack of regard for readers–and by extension, for the craft of writing itself. When we hold our readers and their needs and desires in mind while crafting a story, we’re able to better tap into objectivity–instead of selfishly (and usually stupidly) pursuing our own useless rabbit trails.

4. Makes You Rich

Okay, maybe not rich. But you’ll never get even a chance to frame the check from that first story you sold unless you’re writing, not just for yourself, but for your readers. If you please your readers, they will reward you in the form of sales–lots and lots of them, with any luck.

5. Lets You Share Yourself and Your Joy

Let’s be honest. Even if we if start out writing for ourselves, eventually there’s just too much awesomeness happening for us to hoard it all. We’ll explode if we can’t share our passion for our characters and our story worlds. The inconveniences of explosion aside, sharing a story usually just makes it that much better. I always end up loving my books that much more after they’ve been published and I’ve heard back from readers who welcomed my characters into their own lives and made them their own. And when they start cosplaying your characters, writing theme songs for the book, and drawing fan art? Seriously, why wouldn’t we want to write for others?

Whom Should You Be Writing For? Yourself or Your Readers?

Annan and Mairead from Behold the Dawn by Joanna Marie and Allara from Dreamlander by J.N. Garrett

6. Is (Also) the Whole Point

Storytelling is fundamentally a communal activity. We speak to be heard. We write to be read. As much joy as we may find in the act of creation alone, it is only half the equation.

Writing solely for ourselves or solely for readers will never allow us to reach our full potential as writers. Learn to embrace both sides of this all-important writing mindset, and your storytelling abilities (and enjoyment in them) will skyrocket.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Whom are you writing for? How does it affect your writing process? Tell me in the comments!

Who Should You Be Writing For? Yourself or Your Readers?

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

Email:
About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. robert easterbrook says:

    You know, Katie, you amaze me. Seriously, I don’t know how you manage to maintain your energy and drive; you’re always writing posts! 🙂

    I am too engrossed in what I’m doing to work like that. And perhaps that’s telling – you’re not me, and I’m not you. 😉

    When I started writing ‘professionally’ – gotta love this word – I was as green as a cucumber. But, what I lacked in skill and intuition (?), I certainly made up for with enthusiasm and determination.

    I published my first book on Amazon a few years back, just because I wanted to share with the world my daub, my scrawl of a story. And someone bothered to read it, and give it a rating.

    Now my name isn’t Andy Weir, author of The Martian, whose first book break a ‘golden rule’ some of my published friends – not Katie – told me never to do. No, no, no, they said. Andy Weir was as naive as I was, but lucky for him, chose a better story (though that’s debatable ;P) than I did for his first book.

    The ‘golden rule’ he broke, according my published friends, was this: never, never, not ever publish your stories on your website. While Andy was writing The Martin he, naively, according to my published friends, posted each chapter of the book as he wrote it on his website. Egads! The horror!

    Before he had even finished writing The Martin he was offered a publishing contract and sold the rights for it be turned into a movie, starring some lesser mortal by the name of… Matt Damon! Egads! The horror!

    I’m over it now… cough, cough. But I’m thankful for my ‘blessings’ because the one person – that I’m aware – that bothered to read my story gave it 3/5. At first, I didn’t understand what that really meant. Hah! 3/5! Who is this guy? What would he know? Turns out 3/5 is better than 2/5, and a galaxy away from 1/5, or 0/5. And I’ve seen many 1/5s on Amazon. And quite a few 2/5s too.

    The ‘reviewer’ could’ve said, ‘Don’t give up your day job,’ but s/he didn’t. Though they didn’t think it was the best thing they’d ever read since … the best thing they’d ever read, they still thought it had many good things going for it. They still thought was good enough to be rated 3/5.

    Hopefully, the next person who reads my book will not be put off by what the first person had been put off by. I can only hope. I’m also thankful that they didn’t hate it. They didn’t say terrible things about it. They also didn’t – as far as I’m aware – pour petroleum on it and light a match.

    I’ve learned a lot since writing that book – mostly from Katie. 😉 I’m no longer the green cucumber. And hopefully, in some distant future (or sooner – fingers crossed!), I’ll learn how to write for myself and for readers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. I hear you. Getting those first reviews is . . . traumatic. The good ones are delicious, of course. But they can’t *all* be good. And the not-so-good ones are just kind of bewildering in the beginning. It took me years to really process what the review system meant, both to readers and to myself.

  2. First rate points.
    I write the first draft for myself, the last draft for the reader. There’s a LOT of reworking and editing between start and finish.
    I number my versions. I’ve just finished the 12th edit of one novel. The final draft is about 15,000 words shorter than the first.
    The other day a reader said that, although she liked the story and loved the characters, she didn’t love my “choppy” style. Whoa. I MUST look into that. Maybe put a few words back into Version 13?
    We must listen to the reader.

    • Rona Courtney says:

      Completely agree. The first draft is mine, to get the story out there, out of my head and onto paper. If I don’t expect anyone to ever read it, maybe I stop there. But if I want others to read it (myself included!), I switch to making the remaining drafts about the reader, making the story stronger, the characters stronger, the writing stronger. I think embracing both is critical.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Totally agree. This is a really good way to put it. And it gives us the best of both worlds!

  3. Great post! Really enjoyed it. You certainly give some good perspective here.

  4. I think there’s a tie in to the stage of writing that the author is at. When I draft, it’s most definitely for myself. I’m just trying to get my ideas onto the page in the most authentic way possible.
    Once I’ve drafted, however, and the story’s had a chance to rest, I re-read for structure. That’s when I start thinking of my audience and while the core of the story is always for me, my awareness of my audience stays with me through the revising and editing process.
    I’m like you. I LURVE writing and I’d do it regardless of whether anyone reads my work or not, but to get published, I have to conceed that I must address the needs of my (so far potential) readers.
    Great post.
    Virtual hugs!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. I use the analogy that different parts of the process are right-brained (creative) and left-brained (logical). Conception is right-brained, outlining is left-brained, drafting is right-brained, editing is left-brained. For me, the right-brained stuff is personal, while the left-brained stuff is more about the readers.

  5. Thanks so much for this article! It’s a subject close to my heart. I wrote a similar post myself last year with similar conclusions. Here’s my contribution to the conversation.

    http://www.pieceworx.com/articles/106/do-you-create-for-yourself-or-for-others

  6. Elizabeth Richards says:

    I write for the little girl in pigtails at the end of the post…because 40 years ago that was me. Reading has been such a joy in my life–I’m that much richer for having imagined the lives of Rosemary’s Sutcliffe’s Celtic and Roman heroes (and then lived near their graveyards); for tramping beside Frodo in Lord of the Ring; for watching Darcy with Elizabeth; for living so many lives and seeing so much of the world.

    Maybe I’m writing to the me who lived forty, twenty, five years ago.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Which is an awesome way to think of it. Obviously, if we’re writing MG or YA fiction, our audience is not going to be just like we are. But holding in mind that other self that used to be is a great way to put ourselves in their shoes.

  7. It’s kinda funny – my last blog post was actually exploring this very subject:
    https://jfkitzrow.wordpress.com/2015/07/16/writing-for-the-audience-inside-of-me/

    I personally write for what I call my ‘inner audience’. I’m not necessarily writing for myself, but trying to write something that I know I would want to read. It’s the way that works best for me. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a great mindset! We’re readers as well as authors, after all. If we can write for readers like ourselves, that’s our built-in audience.

  8. It should be for yourself first to have enjoyment to what you do.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. I believe it all starts there–then grows into something we can share with readers.

  9. When writing/revising is going well, I feel like I am writing for me, and for the joy of creating. And I feel like owning that creative vision to it’s best potential is the best thing a writer can to for a reader because otherwise — what’s the point?

    When writing/revising is NOT going well…. I find myself asking far too much: “Is this what my ideal reader would want to see in this situation?” Instead of “Does this suit my vision” and I keep reminding myself “No, no no, I can’t do that because so and so said such and such” Instead of believing in what I want to see/do in any given moment of the story. Which leads to a lot of overthinking, overwhelm, no progress, and in the end no readership whatsoever! Exactly as you said.

    And then there’s information paralysis about the intricacies of the craft of writing… *innocent smile*

    Any advice for a perfectionist to stop diving down these rabbit holes and get back to the pure art of writing?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Heh. Been there, done that with the perfectionist bit. Honestly, I find that the single best thing I can do to conquer that for myself is to write my first drafts as fast as I can. I talk about that in this post: Are You Over-Thinking Your First Draft?.

      • Same deal when spinning wheels in revisions? 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Depends on the type of revision. If it’s something that requires logic and figurin’-out, then that’s obviously going to need us to slow down and be more precise. But usually, I find that in these situations, the best thing I can do is give myself a little space from the project. I walk away for months sometimes, in order to give my subconscious a chance to work the problems out.

  10. When I read the headline, I was secretly hoping you’d champion one side over the other so that I could provide the right answer: both. Alas, you beat me to the punch. 🙂

    One (somewhat snarky) addition to the why-write-for-yourself column: you never have to edit. That is to say, if you’re the only person who will ever read it, it doesn’t have to be great…or even that good. If you had fun telling a story, mission accomplished.

    I’d go so far as to say a successful writer can’t NOT write for readers…unless, as you hinted at early in your post, there are enough people out in the world who have the exact same taste as you (and can tolerate the copious foibles of a first draft) to make it worth your while.

    Anyway, excellent post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think you’re spot-on in what you say about successful authors being unable to *not* write for readers. Nothing wrong with writing solely for ourselves, but we’re unlikely to produce the same polish as someone whose work is going to be under the spotlight.

  11. This is a very good analysis. Although I love having praise from others, I’ve decided awhile ago that I want to primarily write for myself. I love story telling and want to write my own (that get completed), but not professionally. At most I would self-publish on a small scale just so friends, family and others get to see it and give me feedback. As cool as it would be to write professionally, I’m simply not cut out for it, and that doesn’t bother me anymore since I feel that doing so would probably make me hate writing instead giving me satisfaction.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good approach. Praise can be a very double-edged thing. We can be swayed by it wrongly when we believe the good words are true when maybe they’re not. And we can cripple ourselves in our pursuit of it.

  12. I think something would be missing if you didn’t write for both.

  13. I’m glad this showed up in my Twitter stream today because this is what I say I do all the time. I write for me first because if I’m not interested in the topic then I don’t think anyone else would be either. Of course I hope others read whatever I’m writing, so I always invite people to come along for the ride. 🙂

  14. I’ve never understood the question. Seriously. Like the toddler who asks, “Why is the sky?” or the lawyer who asks, “Have you stopped kicking your dog yet?” It’s a nonsense question.

    How would you go about writing a novel only for yourself? What’s the point? Why even write it down, much less struggle and practice and refine? The point isn’t to scribble down a story, Like any project–art, craft or gainful employment–the point is to make the story as close to “perfect” as possible, and if there’s no reader, then there’s no standard and therefore no reason to write it.

    How would you go about writing for a reader? It’s not like you can write something that didn’t first form in your own head. How would you even know what story to write? Where would it come from? Why would you bother to tell a story that didn’t interest you? Tell the reader to go f$@k themselves and read somebody else’s story. Even if you took the latest bestseller, changed the details and rewrote it, the act of changing the details forces you to internalize the story at which point it is no longer somebody else’s story. It’s not in any way possible to “write for a reader”.

    Of course, I’m saying pretty much what you’ve just said. My point is that the question itself is meaningless and incoherent.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Likely, you know the answer without even thinking about it. Maybe the answer is: I write for both …read more […]

  2. […] Whom should you be writing for? It’s a question all writers have to face sooner or later. Usually, we tend to think of the answer in terms of audiences: young adults, women 18-55, general adults, or super geeks of the sort to have read every back issue comic from the Silver Age. My simplest answer to this question Read More… […]

  3. Link Love says:

    […] The question you always keep asking yourself: Whom should you be writing for? Yourself or your readers? ♥ How one designer made the Facebook icon more empowering ♥ This teen’s self-published […]

  4. […] Who should you be writing for, your readers, or yourself? Helping writers become authors. K.M. Weiland. […]

Speak Your Mind

*