What’s the Debate and Who Wins?
I’ve been thinking about the classic debate writers and those who advise writers engage in about who we should write for — ourselves or our readers. I started researching both sides so I could understand the arguments. I was about 30 minutes into my research when I realized there wasn’t a real debate.
I could not find anyone taking a clear stand on the “write for your readers” side. Sure, there was mention of keeping the reader in mind, making sure you provide value, being clear, and related advice, but no one seemed to say, “forget your own needs and write for an audience.”
It’s disconcerting when you think you know something and then find out you were wrong. Not just wrong but you don’t even know where you got the idea in the first place.
The more I thought about this, the more I wondered how many of us walk around with “facts” in our heads that we gained from little more than the lyrics to a song or the headline from an article we didn’t even read.
As writers, when we trip over such inexplicably obtained knowledge, I think we owe it to ourselves to dig a little deeper.
In my instance, I wanted to know why I thought there was such a debate. There’s certainly a lot of advice about writing for yourself. For instance, author Jeff Goins states, “Writing for yourself allows you to turn off the internal critic and be more sincere in your writing. It unlocks your passion. And this is attractive to other people.”
Stephen King is a proponent of not worrying what other people think and says, “I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”
The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suggests writers often forget their readers, “When you’re in the process of writing a paper, it’s easy to forget that you are actually writing to someone. Whether you’ve thought about it consciously or not, you always write to an audience.”
I found several other articles explaining how writing for yourself first will produce the most relatable pieces, allow you to be happier in your work, reduce the stress of wondering how to make thousands of other people happy, and let you live longer. OK, maybe not that last one.
All this left me puzzled about where I had gotten the idea that writers are often advised to write for their readers.
There were some articles recommending the effectiveness of writing for one reader, including Medium writer, Shaunta Grimes, who puts it this way, “You can’t please everyone. Not even some of the time. But you might be able to please someone.”
These articles weren’t really saying to write for the readers instead of yourself though. They were illustrating that you have to have an idea of who your ideal reader is — a woman, a girl, a man, or a boy who loves mysteries, romance, sports fiction or horror and who reads in bed, at work, on the bus or up in a tree.
As I was out walking our dog in the woods, hoping for the insight that often comes from this particular activity, the answer came to me.
The “write for your readers” argument comes from the writing community itself. It doesn’t present itself in words but in actions.
Do you recall what was happening before and after the Harry Potter series turned the world upside down? According to Michelle Smith, Senior Lecturer in Literature at Deakin Univerisity, by the 1990s fantasy stories had fallen out of favor and books were firmly rooted in reality. “Nobody wanted to touch fantasy stories — they were seen as old-fashioned,” she says.
Following the 1997 publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone all that changed “with fantasy becoming the dominant genre in children’s literature.” She points to such series as Twilight and The Hunger Games to illustrate her point.
After the success of Harry Potter, it seemed that thousands of authors suddenly wanted to write about witches and wizards. Later successes Twilight and the Hunger Games both had legions of copycat authors hoping to capitalize on the popularity of vampires and a dystopian future. It’s easy to go on Amazon, find what’s been commercially popular, and then find many, many knock-offs.
Isn’t the fact that so many authors write books similar to whatever is currently popular a sign of writing for the readers and not for the self? This sounds a lot like, “forget your own needs and write for an audience.”
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with wanting to write the type of books people are currently reading or with striving for commercial success. I am saying that this is a behavior in our culture that signifies the extreme importance of writing for the reader.
This is reinforced with various marketing tools and tactics that have authors targeting keywords, titles, and authors that are currently popular. These are ways of gaining readers’ attention and saying, “Hey — I know you like X, so you will like my book, too.” Aren’t these actions very close to making sure your focus as a writer is on the reader and not yourself?
So, I think that is where my idea that there is a debate about writing for yourself versus for your readers came from. One is written about as if there is a debate, and the other is not really a position anyone argues, but an action that we all feel as if it was.
I think it benefits us as writers to question our own beliefs and assumptions more than is comfortable. By doing so, it’s possible we might discover facts that improve our credibility or patterns of human behavior that enable us to more meaningfully connect with our readers. Also, it might lead to some insight — just for you.
I originally published this story on Medium. Here’s the link.