Everyone makes mistakes—even writers—but that's OK because each mistake is a great learning opportunity. The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them early in the process. Note: The mistakes in this series aren't focused on grammar rules, though we offer help in that area as well.
Rather, we're looking at bigger picture mistakes and mishaps, including the error of using too much exposition, neglecting research, or researching too much. This week's writing mistake writers make is writing for one person.
I was sitting in my cubicle at a previous employer, relatively new to the company, when I overheard a colleague—let’s call them Sam—speak of their reading preferences.
“I hate all books written in first person,” they said.
At the time, I’d been working on a story, and was well into its first draft, which was written in first person. But I’d hit a wall that I was having trouble working through. I was a very self-conscious writer, insecure in my abilities, and Sam said this with such authority that it gave me pause: Are stories told in first person inherently bad? The conviction of this opinion did something to my inner critic, and I declared a proclamation: First-person writing should be avoided at all costs.
That weekend, I Control-Shift-Found every mention of “I” or “me” in my draft and started the arduous process of rewriting it in the third-person perspective. ‘There,’ I thought. ‘Now it will be easy. Now it will be better.’
So why wasn’t it easy? Why wasn’t it better? I continued to struggle with how to evolve the characters, where to take the plot, and I ultimately decided that the story itself wasn’t strong, so I shelved it. But I continued with this 11th Commandment: Thou shall not write in first person. I wrote exclusively in third person with each new story idea, some to completion (and satisfaction) and others to lie cold and to collect as the Untitled Document series, assuming the same—that the unfinished stories were no good to begin with.
Cut to the summer of 2014, when the television adaptation of Outlander was premiering. In the lunchroom, I was sitting with colleagues discussing the premiere, when Sam said, “Outlander is my favorite book of all time.”
I looked up at them, my mouth agape. I’d recently started reading the series for the first time, and said, “I thought you hated books written in first person.”
“Well,” they said, “Outlander is the exception,” and continued with their lunch, apparently not hearing the sirens and screams and general chaos. Alas, it was in my head.
At first I was angry with Sam. Having read Outlander, I knew part of its success was in how thoughtful Claire’s perspective was. So how can the exception to one’s rules also be the very best example, in their opinion, of a certain artform? Can you say you hate all fantasy, but your favorite films are The Lord of the Rings movies? Can you say you hate all country music, but your favorite musician is Tim McGraw?
The answer is simple. Yes, you can. You’re entitled to feel whatever you feel, and so I turned my anger inward—not just for taking an opinion and translating it as some oracular piece of knowledge, but also for abandoning my own desires for the story I was trying to write. I’d placed upon Sam a pressure they didn’t ask for: to fix my problems, both in my craft and in my confidence.
How to Avoid the Mistake
We’ve talked about the mistake of trying to write for everyone before. But you should also be aware of trying to write for just one person. Since disavowing Sam’s opinion as fact, I’ve instead chosen to follow my instincts. When a story comes to me, so does the perspective. So, I write it that way. Not only has this helped my confidence, but it’s also helped my writing. It’s helped me find my style, my voice as a writer, and to stay on track.
Moreover, it's helped me decide for myself how to try and make a story better. Sometimes it is changing the perspective, but also sometimes it's deciding if something works better as a short story instead of a novel, or if a side character should be the main character. It's reminded me to explore every possible option, and see which one feels right for the story in question.
If you’re a writer, then you’re probably a reader—which means you are friends with readers, and you all have different reading preferences and habits. Part of the fun of being a member of a reading community is hearing those different opinions and perspectives. No one person reads the same as the next, nor is one better than the other. In crafting your story, silence how others feel, or what you think they want, and let that be a space simply for you and what you’re trying to achieve.
So, if you’re going to write for one reader, make sure that reader is you. Write the story that you want to read and how you want to read it, because nobody else is going to do that for you.