Who Do You Write For?

I’ve been struggling with this one. “Who do you write for?” keeps getting tangled up with “who’s your audience?” They’re related, but they’re not the same. Who are you writing for before you have an audience out there? Let’s leave the out there audience aside for now. We’ll come back to it soon, I promise.

Aside: Yes, I do know that purists will insist on “Whom do you write for?” or “For whom do you write?” At the moment I’m not writing primarily for purists. Be warned.

So the other morning, while procrastinating warming up, I went over to Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog and found “When Words Stop” by Beth Taylor. Beth Taylor was writing for me, whether she knew it or not, so I had to write back:

Been there . . . For me writing is a conversation. If no one’s listening and (maybe more important) if no one’s speaking back and otherwise responding, the words dry up. Any actor can tell you that monologues are hard to pull off. One-person shows are even harder. In a one-person show, the actor is rarely talking just to her- or himself. Sometimes she’s talking to the audience, or a particular person in the audience. Other times she’s addressing a character that only she can see at first, but in doing so she makes that character visible to the audience. Writers can do that — we’re often doing it without knowing it.

When I write, I write alone -- but there's always someone there.

When I write, I write alone — but there’s always someone there.

Aha. That’s who I’m writing for: someone that only I can see but that I’m in continual conversation with when I write. That someone has evolved over the years. She wasn’t always there.

At first I wrote to keep from cracking up. I also wrote to turn myself on — remember the desert fantasies? This was back in the day when writing on paper was the only option. Most of the paper I wrote on got burned in my parents’ fireplace or, later, ripped to shreds and put out with the trash. This was a big clue that I wasn’t writing for anyone else. I destroyed most of what I wrote because I was afraid someone else would find it and think I was crazy.

The time came — and it came pretty quickly — when writing for myself wasn’t enough. I wanted people to read at least some of what I wrote. I thought it was worth reading. In college I reviewed books and the occasional concert. I wrote regular op-ed columns, mostly political commentary. Most of my published writing since then has consisted of reviews and commentary, with significant forays into poetry, journalism, theater, and, most recently, fiction.

But that doesn’t explain why I sometimes hesitate over a phrase and think: No, that’s not right or That’s going too far. Or why I make choices that I know bloody well aren’t commercial: they limit my publication options, which weren’t all that great to start with. Who do I write for?

Turns out that the choices I make are clues to the identity of this mysterious entity, the reader who makes writing worthwhile.

I’m writing for the person who’s willing to read about and even identify with characters who aren’t like them in some ways.

I’m writing for the person who’s willing to be momentarily perplexed or even pissed off but doesn’t want to be hoodwinked for no reason.

I’m writing for the person who once in a while will be struck by a turn of phrase and think, That’s exactly right. Who might even toy with possible alternatives and finally conclude, Yeah, you made the right choice.

All of which, come to think of it, describes the sort of reader I’d like to be, and try to be: one who’s brave enough to venture into unfamiliar territory as long as she trusts her guide, and one who appreciates the effort that goes into the writing.

Let's see where the road goes, huh?

Let’s see where the road goes, huh?

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7 thoughts on “Who Do You Write For?

  1. I like the way you’ve looked at this as something that changes and has different answers. I think that, too often, people try to provide writers with a single answer to ‘who are you writing for?’ Some say for yourself, some your ideal reader, some the market, etc. But really it varies with what you’re writing, and when, and why.

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    • Does it ever! Over the years I’ve written for different audiences — except often it was the other way around: the audience was there and I learned to write for it. So I’m aware of how it shifts, and how it affects my writing even when there’s no audience in sight. I want to push this a little further, into niches and genres and how the external audience influences the choices a writer makes. I come to this as an editor as well — I work on both academic and trade books, mostly nonfiction but some fiction too, and having some idea of the intended audience is important.

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  2. Thanks for “For whom do you write” – this was required by Mum – hovering somewhere behind my left shoulder.
    “But that doesn’t explain why I sometimes hesitate over a phrase and think: No, that’s not right or That’s going too far.” I wonder if this is something about an inherent need for the creation of quality. Sloppy or inadequate work – whether in writing or wood – sparks a compulsion to fix it or suffer an ongoing nagging guilt. This is true whether or not anyone else will know about it. On the other hand this contradicts the “requirement for audience”…..Wakefulness at 5am ish does not necessarily result in logic.

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