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Should You Write for Yourself or for the Reader?

Categories: Brian Klems' The Writer's Dig Tags: Brian Klems.

People who come to my writing workshops always ask me the same thing: “Should I write for myself, or for the reader?”

It’s a tricky, loaded question, but I always answer it with one of my own: “Do you want to get published and be paid for it, or are you not really concerned about other people buying and reading your book?” Most people respond that they want to get their work published, have people read and enjoy it, and make a few bucks in the process.

In which case my advice is that writing for yourself is not the answer. Let me explain.

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This article is written by Kip Langello who is a novelist and writing coach. He lives in the Boston area and is finishing up his sixth novel. You can contact him at kiplangello@hotmail.com.
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I’m not saying you should abandon your interests and style and voice. That’s why you became a writer in the first place. That’s what separates you from every other writer out there. That’s what will ultimately get you published. You just have to focus your talent in the right direction. And that’s outward.

Some people say, “Write a book that you would buy, and other people will buy it, too.” But my experience has been that very few people can truly view themselves objectively as a target reader, as a segment of an audience. It’s close to impossible.

[Learn important writing lessons from these first-time novelists.]

Still, while it’s not a good idea to focus on writing only for yourself … you shouldn’t attempt the impossible feat of writing for an entire bookstore of readers, either. To better understand why (on both accounts), go to the nearest bookstore and stand next to the display of tiny novelty books near the cash register. Grab one about finding happiness, something like that. Pretend to read it. What you’re secretly going to do is watch the people in line who are buying books. They’re the people who make the publishing world go round. Listen to what they’re saying, look at what they’re wearing, try to get a sense of who they are. Observe. Absorb.

One thing will be readily apparent: The majority of them are not like you, or like one another. They’re all wildly different. And not just in the way they look and talk, but in what they choose to read.

So who do you write for, then? The agent you’re trying to sign with? The editor you want to impress? The buyer for Amazon or Barnes & Noble?

The true answer is: none of the above. I wrote nine novels. All rejected. I have dozens of letters to show for it. One telling me the characters were good but the plot was weak. Another telling me that the same plot was great but the characters were weak. But then I wrote manuscript No. 10. Published. Six-figure advance, two-book contract, even an option from Viacom for a TV movie. Novel No. 11 … published; 12, 13, 14, 15 … all published. Why? What was the difference?

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Before writing No. 10, I asked myself who was going to read my book. I visualized one person from that proverbial bookstore line. Not me. And not a generalization of everybody else. One person. The same way I create characters when I write, I created a reader—my ideal reader. The best fit for my book, my work. I made her a woman. Thirty-four years old. She worked in the medical records department at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Her husband worked for Orkin, spraying for termites (infestations are a big problem in Florida). She and her husband were both big Dolphins fans and wore Dan Marino jerseys on the weekends. I made her a living, breathing person. And I gave her a name: Peggy. Then I sat down to write my novel. Every time I created a scene, I thought about Peggy reading it. Would she like this character? Was this joke going to make her laugh? Would this antagonist scare her? I Peggy-tested everything.

[Learn the 5 Essential Story Ingredients You Need to Write a Better Novel]

Why? Who is Peggy? Why is what she likes the one and only thing that will sell? Well, what she likes isn’t the one and only thing that will sell. But I know Peggy’s tastes inside and out, and I have learned to write for her well. Crafting a story for Peggy forced me to use a consistent voice and style, to be consistent and focused and true to a single reader, representative of a larger niche readership. And so my novel read that way—consistent, focused, true. Not self-indulgent and occasionally meandering because I wrote it thinking only of myself, and not broad and flat because I tried to write it for the reading public at large.

When a writer achieves this focus, what happens is the reader buys into the story and is not then ripped out of that reality by something that doesn’t feel right. The reader will not merely read your novel, she will enter it—and she won’t emerge until it’s over.

If Peggy accepts your reality as hers, so will other readers. Don’t dwell on winning over everyone. Even the top-selling novelists don’t. Just win over your own version of Peggy. Entertain and enlighten and move that one reader. The single-mindedness that results from this technique is what makes the difference. You’ll be able to turn down the mental noise of trying to write for everyone in that bookstore line, yourself included.

Fulfill that single person’s expectations, and you’ll have a reader for life—and, in all likelihood, the attention of an agent or an editor who can immediately see that you know exactly who your audience is.

Thanks for visiting The Writer’s Dig blog. For more great writing advice, click here.

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Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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14 Responses to Should You Write for Yourself or for the Reader?

  1. smallPencil says:

    Excellent advise. What he’s saying boils down to, “choose a target demographic.” That is the most basic and powerful marketing tool. And not just for writing, for everything.

    • smallPencil says:

      On the other hand, and I hate to say this, but perhaps the reason you sold your 10th novel was simply that it was your 10th novel. Someone who has written 9 novels is likely to be better at it than someone who has written one or two. Just as someone who has been working out for 9 months is likely to be in better shape than someone who has been working out for 1 month.

  2. jannertfol says:

    The simplest way to make use of this tip is to imagine you are writing for a particular person you already know, rather than concocting an imaginary reader. It would make sense to choose somebody you are sure would like what you’re going to write, but I suppose you could achieve an interesting tone if you chose somebody you think might need a bit of persuading.

    Whoever, you pick, just tell this person the story, as if they’re sitting in front of you. Of course you don’t need to ACTUALLY tell this real person they’re the focus of your writing life. But if they do get to read and truly enjoy your story after you’re done—my muse did—you’ll feel fantastic.

    I chose my sister to ‘tell’ my story to. It worked a treat!

  3. KimberleyLB says:

    I think I agree with Tyunglebower and ShamlessHack. I’ve never imagined a reader. I’ve focused on one that I’ve already had and that does work, however, that line of thinking can also backfire on writers. If you are writing to merely please someone, and you don’t accomplish that goal, then why write?

    I don’t view writing as a popularity contest anymore because what’s cool to me might not be cool to you. And frankly, what’s in right now will be forgotten in the next five minutes. It’s not only impossible to please someone, it can be downright exhausting.

    I started writing at the age of 9 because it was fun to write stories. Since then I wrote poetry, blogs, articles, non-fiction, and short stories on many topics, but I stopped writing fiction because I was told I’d never make any good money at it. I still wrote stories because I had fun, but I hid them from the public because 2 people in my life thought I wouldn’t go anywhere with my fiction.

    Lately, though, and maybe it’s because I reached a pinnacle age in my life, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t care what people think anymore. I will not write for any particular reader that I have, or will have. I will just write fiction, particularly paranormal romance, because it’s what I do to relax. If people wind up enjoying what I have to say, that’s great. They can enjoy the ride along with me. But I don’t ever want to change myself for another person ever again. Through my experience, once you do that, you have lost yourself.

    • lidywilks says:

      little late in the game, but I can relate. I’ve had a book in my hands by the time I started first grade. Even made paper book series about twin princesses running away and their descendants doing the same between third and fourth grade. My friend/classmate loved them. Since then I’ve always wanted to pursue a career in writing/publication until I reached high school and my Spanish teacher told me that it was just a hobby you couldn’t make a living in. And ended it with asking what I really want to do. And that’s when I detoured but went right back on track after taking an elective Creative Writing class during my freshman year in college. I really loved it after all, so switched majors from Mass Communication (it became my minor) to English-Creative Writing track.

      However finding a job after graduation, dealing with school loans and starting my own family had me on an involuntarily hiatus. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I started focusing on my writing again and to get by I rely on this quote from J.K. Rowling- “In truth, I never consider the audience for whom I’m writing. I just write what I want to write.” Personally, I feel that your writing is freer this way. There is nothing wrong with targeting a specific audience, as long as it’s able to guide your writing and not dictate. If so, then your book will be no different than the thousands of books already flooding the market. Last thing I want is to contract the-same-book-but-with-a-different-cover influenza

  4. Dwight Okita says:

    This is an interesting dilemma. I think when I write a novel, I am writing for both myself and the reader. I’m trying to express some unique thing that comes from inside my world… that I hope will move the reader on the other side of the page. But if I had to say which side gets more attention, I’d probably say my focus is on affecting the reader most of all. Because I am a reader too.

    As a reader, my needs are simple. I want to feel curious about the world of the book, some kinship to the hero. And if the book has gravitas (which I love), it sure better have some humor as well. Some parts can move slower and some parts should move quickly. I surely want some kind of gunfight duel in the climax. And if I can’t have a happy ending, I at least want a bittersweet one. But that’s just me. http://www.dwightokita.com

  5. Dwight Okita says:

    This is an interesting dilemma. I think when I write a novel, I am writing for both myself and the reader. I’m trying to express some unique thing that comes from inside my world… that I hope will move the reader on the other side of the page. But if I had to say which side gets more attention, I’d probably say my focus is on affecting the reader most of all. Because I am a reader too.

    As a reader, my needs are simple. I want to feel curious about the world of the book, some kinship to the hero. And if the book has gravitas (which I love), it sure better have some humor as well. Some parts can move slower and some parts should move quickly. I surely want some kind of gunfight duel in the climax. And if I can have a happy ending, I at least want a bittersweet one. But that’s just me. http://www.dwightokita.com

    • When you’re new to posting to the site, your posts go into a folder and need to be approved before they get posted–and I’m the one that has to approve them to confirm the posts aren’t spam (we get a TON of spam). Once I approve the first couple, you won’t have problems anymore and the posts will show up automatically and immediately. Often, if the first posts by a new user are on Friday afternoon or over the weekend or on a day I’m not in the office or an evening, I won’t be able to go through the folder until I return.

      Anyway, you are now approved and can post away! Welcome to the Writer’s Digest community.
      Brian
      Online Editor

      • Everton says:

        Hi Brian,

        I thought they weren’t going through because the others were going up right away. I woke up this morning hoping there wouldn’t be a billion posts by me saying things like “Check, check. Is this thing on? Test, test.”

        Thanks for the reply, much appreciated,

        Ken

  6. Everton says:

    I would imagine that Peggy is really the author, and that his writing isn’t much different since she started sitting on his shoulder chirping at him.

    I used to write for a real girl. I could see her frown if she didn’t understand something, feel her cringe if something was sappy, and hear her laugh if something was actually funny. Over the years I have replaced her with my own judgement. If I laugh, it’s good. If I frown, it’s confusing, and if I cringe I need to delete it. I still ‘consult’ her for some really difficult parts.

    Odd thing is, as much as I respect her opinion above all others, she has recommended some REALLY crappy books to me!

    Write what thrills you. Write what gives you joy to create. Write what you are passionate about, but keep a BS detector close by. Enthusiasm, passion, thrill, and joy are contagious. Write like that, and your readers will come…with a lot of promotion. And tell Peggy to cut down on the cigarettes and to quit meddling in her sister’s affairs.

  7. stanislavf says:

    I rarely bother commenting on writing advice, as it tends to be the same over the decades. I find less and less nuances that are worth plucking out.

    Yet, I find a nugget here, partially due to the comments by TyUnglebower and ShamelessHack. That I found the comments useful deserves a comment all on its own. Thank god this site has not been taken over by trolls who simply comment to cause a firestorm.

    What I find is that the nuance here is important. The FOCUS of creating a fictional character to be your reader is the key, rather than writing for yourself. Why? Because it actually does a few things. One, it is essentially creating a character with a fully fleshed out back story. This is a great thing for any writer to do. If you are able to do this, then you are able to create good characters. Thus, the mere exercise of creating the ideal reader is a fabulous writing prompt. Until you can do that, then probably your characters in your writing are too flat, too one (or two) dimensional.

    The further nuance is I am a male. Guess what. 80% of fiction is read by females. I am not naive in thinking that if I am writing just for me that I am understanding my reader. Not that I am writing for everyone, but I am not writing just for men. Additionally, in several of my books I have female protagonists (as the central protagonist). I don’t want those female protagonists to come across as men with tits. To do that, I need to stretch a little. I want to write something I would read, sure, but something that I would read and say “hmm, I am getting an insight that I would not have guessed I would have liked” … thus to stretch myself, I like the thought of whether my fictitious reader would like it and WHY. The WHY is why you create a single reader.

    I love that my critique group has two women in it. While they may love, for instance, 50 Shades of Gray, I think it’s garbage and would normally not read it, I also know they might read The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton, Night by Edna O’Brien, and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro. So I am targeting that kind of reader, not me.

    What the two commenters (is the plural of commenter, commenters?) make as a point, which is ALWAYS TRUE, is no advice is absolute and that someone who writes for themselves, if properly self aware, may also work. But, for instance, one can personally not mind a very graphic scene, but like a less graphic scene with the same theme, plot, etc. Then having a person you are writing for might give you an edge.

    Regardless, the exercise in creating that reader is a great one by itself.

  8. I think Steven King said it: Write a book that YOU would like to READ.
    If you do that, and you like to read concise, intelligent, interesting terrific stuff, that’s what the result will (hopefully) be.
    Know one really knows what the public will latch onto, or why. Trying to divine what tickle’s Joe Reader’s fancy is a losing battle, and I’m not sure how Joe and the fictional “Peggy doll” in the above article differ.
    Part of your mind will always be whispering “how will someone else be reading this?” anyway. That’s part of all writing.
    If your sole aim is to be a commercial success, then go ahead and try to dissect the public demand. Good luck with that.
    Ultimately readers will discover the good stuff by themselves, so write to the top of your ability as a writer, as a person with a message, a guy or girl on a mission–however you feel about you spending your valuable time at the keyboard.
    Write like it’s the last thing you’ll ever write.

  9. TyUnglebower says:

    It’s not bad advice. It’s useful, creative. And most important of all, if it works for the author, it works. That’s all that matters.

    In the end though, I think this whole approach could be summed up with one line within this post:

    “Don’t dwell on winning over everyone.”

    That being said, I’m not sure how singling out a fictional reader and concentrating on him/her is much different than singling out an actual real-life reader and focusing on them. If the stated goal is to avoid writing for the multitudes, (and I agree with that), surely that goal can be just as easily attained by “writing for” someone who is real.

    For that matter, if one can create a single ideal reader at whom the writing is directed, it seems to me one can just as easily, in the end, write to oneself. I hear the arguments about not being 100% objective, but if I create a “Peggy” out of my imagination, that’s not exactly objective either.

    Plus there is a difference between writing for ones self, and being self-indulgent. “Not self-indulgent and occasionally meandering because I wrote it thinking only of myself…” the author writes above. But is that the same thing as creating a fiction that appeals and speaks to us as authors, as the first step in appealing to other people? My story and themes can appeal to me without reading like literary navel-gazing.

    Again, it’s not bad advice. I’m sure it will help a lot of people. But I don’t think the author is being totally fair to those who so called ‘write for themselves’ in everything written here.

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