Saturday, January 24, 2009

Who are you Trying to Impress 3

I’ve had folks tell me over the years that they write just for themselves. Some of these individuals have even been in writing groups with me. The fact that they were in a writing group made me think they were not writing “strictly” for themselves. They were sharing stuff and taking comments. That, to me, means that they wanted their writing to connect with others. If someone were writing only for his or her own pleasure, how would anyone else ever find out? Except, perhaps, by accident.

There’s nothing at all wrong with writing for yourself. In fact, I believe this is the purest of all motives. I just can’t believe that most writing folks honestly don’t care whether they are read or not. If you’re putting it out in any public forum, I think you want someone to read it.

It hardly needs to be said that writing truly for one’s self will not earn you any money, except, perhaps, by the sheerest freak of an accident.

On the other hand, those who write for “readers” have the best chance to make truly huge sums of money. The lucky ones will be able to buy and sell the champion money makers from the other three types. But money is only one motive for those who write for readers, and often not the primary motive. These writers often say they want to “entertain.”

Writers who write to impress readers avoid fancy language. They use a simple, everyday vocabulary and mostly short sentences devoid of adornment. They keep the focus off their style and on the story. They may strive to be largely invisible to the reader. Although they don’t necessarily shirk character development, their characters often serve the needs of the story more clearly than the needs of the characters themselves. This often means that the characters are sketched more broadly than in fiction directed toward critics or other writers. These writers also make strong use of action and often utilize cliffhangers.

Again, there is nothing wrong with writing for readers. Some might even say this is the primary audience toward which all writing should be directed.

For my next, and final post in this series, I’ll make some closing comments concerning the four types of audiences, and will tell you how I feel about them. And will reveal who I write for.
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46 comments:

Georgie B said...

I originally started writing for myself, as an outlet for some unresolved issues that were going on at the time.

After I started showing my writing to a few of my co-workers,getting both positive and negative feedback on it, I started tweaking my writing.

It's been a slow process, but I've been making steady progress with my writing. For now, the improvement has been confined to my blog, but the lessons/critique that I've picked up elsewhere is being applied to both a few new stories and the old ones that I've been busily rewriting.

Scott said...

Charles,

I think that, for myself, I try to write for 'readers', but also to please myself as well.

Many good points in this series. Nice work!

jodi said...

I get that, Charles. If I didn't enjoy the feedback as well as learning from everyone, I would just keep a private journal. Not nearly as much fun.

RHFay said...

"Writers who write to impress readers avoid fancy language. They use a simple, everyday vocabulary and mostly short sentences devoid of adornment."

I'm not sure this is entirely true of poets, but then poets may be a whole other breed. Poets may use fancy language and adorned sentences, and yet write poetry for readers (of poetry, anyway).

I know I don't write my poetry just for myself; I write it for others to read. I'll admit it, I'm a rather mercenary poet. I only took up poetry again, after about a decade-long hiatus, to try to build a list of publications. I hoped poetry publications would open other doors, and in a way, they have.

As for word choice, I've been known to use some fancy language. I certainly like to intersperse some "interesting" vocabulary throughout my works. And it seems to work for me. I've apparently impressed at least a few readers and editors, based on comments I've received. Using my somewhat "poetic" language has even worked in a non-fiction piece or two.

Of course, individual results may vary. Each writer has their own style. What works for me might not work for another writer, and vice-versa.

Virginia Lady said...

You make some interesting points. Just as we tend to adjust our dialogue at a party to coordinate better with those in attendance, we adjust our writing to those we expect will read it. I suspect that most of the time it's an unconscious act. A way of pleasing those around us, even if we're not consciously aware of doing so.

Lisa said...

I hope to one day be published, but in my case, money really isn't a part of the equation. I anticipate that I'll work in a non-writing capacity until I can retire and focus on writing. I'm good with that. In fact, it takes away an enormous amount of pressure and I credit full time writers with being able to endure it. I couldn't.

I think it may be an oversimplification to say that writers who write for readers avoid fancy language and write simply. "Fancy language" has a negative connotation and I'm not sure what writing simply means.

I think it would be more accurate to note that there are as many different types of readers as there are writers.

I have an imaginary audience of readers who like the same types of books I do. At this stage of my development as a writer, I write to please myself (now) because I feel fairly confident about what I like and what my imaginary readers like.

Steve Malley said...

This has been a really fun series!

Charles Gramlich said...

Georgie B, that was the main reason I wrote my first poetry, to deal with or try to understand things going on inside of me. I think for stories, though, I always wanted to have readers.

Scott, I think that’s pretty much where I’m at as well.

Jodi, I do keep a journal, and as you say it’s just for me. Although sometimes ideas from there get put into other kinds of writing.

RHFay, I’m not even sure poets could be said to write for “readers.” Maybe Dr. Seuss’s poetry, or someone like Rod McKuen perhaps. It almost always seems with poetry that there are other purposes. So much is self expression.
Good point.

Virginia Lady, you’re probably right in many cases, and I’m not even sure examining it more closely is helpful. But I can’t leave a place that itches alone. I have to scratch it, and the same is true for trying to figure out why writers do what they do.

Lisa, good point but I believe I’m going to disagree. I think as soon as you use the word “argent” instead of silver, or “lavender” instead of purple, you are no longer writing just for the average “reader.” I don’t mean that “readers” are stupid, only that I believe that most people who “just” read are truly focused first and foremost on story. I’m not saying using “argent” is bad, only that it changes the audience for the story. It moves it toward writing for yourself, or towards writing for peers.

Steve Malley, glad you are enjoying. Just one more installment to go.

Sidney said...

Someone once said a man has two reasons for doing anything, the right reason and the real reason. Maybe that could be modified a little. Maybe everybody writes for themselves but also has other motivations that they may not always voice.

Travis said...

I see that Sidney addressed the point I was thinking as I read. I wonder whether the question of who the writer is trying to impress can't have more than one answer for each book or story or article.

Or, couldn't the answer morph over time.

Cullen Gallagher said...

Great series of articles! Been really helpful as it has made me reconsider my own motivations for writing.

Crushed said...

I think most people pitch somewhere in the middle.

I think I vary in who I aim for. Certainly with my blog, I write some posts for readers, but some posts purely for the search engines.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sidney, I sound most psychological when I say that I think most people don't really consciously recognize their reasons for doing things.

Travis, you're anticipating something I intend to talk about in my last post.

Cullen, glad you found something useful in it.

Crushed, I think most writers do definitely change who they aim at for specific pieces.

Greg Schwartz said...

great post! makes me wonder who I really write for....

Lana Gramlich said...

Painting for myself virtually ensured that I'd get stuck with it all. Unfortunately painting for the market's not proving much different...

Mimi Lenox said...

Lots to think about here. Blogging has totally revamped the way I approach the art of writing. Motivation....to entertain, clearly..but more importantly, for me, to connect with readers.
I DO care that someone reads it. Of course I do! Getting published would be a dream. I am so lacking in the wherewithal to find the marketing tools I need. NOT my forte.

I need to change that.
Really.

Lisa said...

I'd have to agree with you on "argent" (although it's possible it might work in some historical context), but I'm pretty sure almost everyone knows what color lavender is! And I will agree with you that there is a certain level of vocabulary that most readers are comfortable with. But, I'd disagree with the assumption that there isn't a viable market for writing that tends toward a more challenging vocabulary and/or uses references to real events or artists or writers that the reader is assumed to be familiar with. You're right in that if I have characters say things like, "so do you two think you're Woodward and Bernstein now?" or "let them eat cake" or "out damn spot" or "of the two of them, he's playing Salieri and she's Mozart" or "et tu, Charles", I have to make the assumption that I'm writing for an audience who gets those references and it probably won't include most readers -- but it still includes quite a few.

I think that's where a decision (maybe a dumb one and maybe not) to write what you want to read comes in, knowing that it does have an impact on marketability or who are you trying to appeal to.

the walking man said...

When I hosted the poetry gig every Sunday night I often had this discussion with people who would bring in a tattered notebook full of writing.

I found that them who stated that they wrote for themselves and would never present their writing in public basically wanted to be cajoled.

So I began to use the hour before the open mic to help anyone who wished a little confidence in getting over the fear of being in front of a crowd. (that I didn't couch it in terms of the open mic but rather how it would help them in their speech class was a trick...I didn't care about speech class)

The "kids" who wrote for themselves, once they tasted the crowds mostly positive reaction, began to get bolder and bolder with their writing, exploring beyond the angst of solitude into more worldly topics.

That was the most humbling experience for me of that 18 months and I do believe that there are now readers out there that a young writer, writes for.

I suppose what I'm saying is that a process has to happen and I don't think one who writes has to write for a particular audience; once they know that there is an audience available.

With that knowledge a writer will write and not think of the connection until there is some monetary reward. Dollars for words is not an bad thing at all but it is a result not a reason.

Maalie said...

Writing to entertain may certainly be a motive, but I would say that initially I began blog-writing to inform. This arose with friends and family dispersed, it served to simply let them know where I am and what I am up to. Sure, if it can be done in an entertaining manner, so much the better, I think.

Maalie said...

Writing to entertain may certainly be a motive, but I would say that initially I began blog-writing to inform. This arose with friends and family dispersed, it served to simply let them know where I am and what I am up to. Sure, if it can be done in an entertaining manner, so much the better, I think.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I never write for me. Other people do it so much better. The kind of plot that pleases me is devoid of plot and action--and who wants to read that. I could easily read a story about a person of no consequence's day. And the day after. So I never write for me.

BernardL said...

Your friends from the writing group may have meant they were writing first for themselves, rather than only for themselves. The drudgery of the editing process dictates we love what we write, or we won't survive the editing. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Greg, A question only you can answer.

Lana, nothing seems to come easy, does it?

Mimi, marketing has proved immensely tougher for me than the writing. And much less fun.

Lisa, I think we’re actually arguing much the same thing. There is “definitely” a market for writing that tends toward a challenging vocabulary or for those that use reference to real events or artists. That market is toward other writers/readers/peers, or language mavens, and not toward the person who is “just” a reader. James Patterson writes for “just” readers. James Lee Burke writes for writers/readers/peers. Now not all of the audience for Burke’s work will consider themselves writers, but they will definitely have a taste for language that Patterson’s readers don’t really care about. I’m not trying to say there is no place for writing for critics, or peers, or readers. There’s certainly a place. I’m just trying to say that the writer should consciously understand what they are trying to achieve.

Mark, I think you hit the nail on the head. If they hadn’t wanted readers other than themselves they wouldn’t have been there with their tattered notebooks. They said they were writing for themselves as a way to protect their feelings. I understand that. Writing can be terribly hurtful at times.

Maalie, mostly my focus in this series of posts is about fiction, which can inform but which I’m not sure is the primary motive. Nonfiction, certainly may have a primary focus on informing.

Pattinase, hum, I could almost never read a story about a person of no consequence’s day. The reason being, I live that day pretty much every day. And I almost always want to read about something different or new to my experience. But you make a good point about plot and action.

Bernardl, I know that many writers do exactly that. I’m pretty much one of them. But in a couple of cases in groups I’ve been in the writers have said: “I don’t want to be published. I only write for myself.”

laughingwolf said...

i think we're pretty much on the same page... just get there a bit differently

Barrie said...

Speaking of writing for yourself, I have some really private, personal, achey adolescent diaries. I really need to get rid of them. But I can't....

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, I mainly just wanted to get people to think about their audience.

Barrie, oh you should definitely keep those. They can always provide research.

Travis Erwin said...

This has been a very good series Charles. Sorry I haven't commented more.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I'd like to say that I write just for myself, but that's not what happens. There are times where I'm "in the moment" - times where it doesn't seem to matter who my future readers are. Heck, if I'm on a roll with my words I'm thinking of nothing else. Does this make sense? Do you have a couch? Should I tell you my problems.

spyscribbler said...

I don't think I write for myself. Well, I don't know. I don't know why I write, really. When it's really tough, I write for money. After I get a reader email, I write for readers. I don't know if I write for myself. I'm near the end of my WIP, so it's like writing through mud, and I'm sure as heck not doing that for myself, LOL!

Come to think of it, sometimes I feel like I write for my characters!

Heff said...

I think EVERY writer secretly writes for readers, whether they choose to admit it or not. I could be wrong, though.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis Erwin, don't worry about that. You've got enough on your mind. Glad you're enjoying.

J. R., when I'm in the throes of the first draft I think it often is primarily for me, at least. I keep the audience in mind more when I'm doing a revision.

Spyscribbler, I didn't really think of that, writing for the characters. it does feel like that sometimes.

Heff, I think so, although it might be fore different types of readers.

steve said...

Spyscribbler has a good point--my characters are constantly giving me advice. Occasionally it's bad advice.

But your debate with Lisa is most interesting. And it suggests that writing for oneself may be a good strategy. Rather than trying to impress the reader with one's vocabulary or consciously "dumbing down" the text, the writer can aim for a reader like him- or herself. Argent is pretentious, but lavender isn't, as Lisa point out. The distinction is ultimately the writer's to make, with his or her experience as the criterion.

Cloudia said...

This is a great series of posts. Thank you & aloha-

Robin said...

Wow,what a lively debate! I so agree with Lisa on some levels.

I get these characters, sort of sketch them out...and the the little weiners go off and do their own thing and throw the plot completely out of whack. But they're generally right.

I said before I write for 'readers' and what I meant was I preferred 'reader's feedback'.

At the risk of sounding trite?...I write because I have to, because I want to, and because it soothes my overactive imagination? It's FUN to create alternate worlds (not scifi...just fiction) and tell a story....I write for one reason and one reason only.

I enjoy it.

SzélsőFa said...

A great series I've just put myself into reading, Charles.
I value your great deal of acceptance 'There's not hing particularly wring with...' - as we are all different. Even one is not the same s/he used to be a second ago :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Steve, I think most writers, but not all, probably aim for a reader who is something like they are. I've used lavender and argent in my work. I don't necessarily consider them "pretentious." They are not the simplest words that can be used, though. I think folks are misunderstanding me and thinking I'm attacking or looking down on any writing for other than the reader. "Nothing" could be further from the case.

Cloudia, glad you are enjoying.

Robin, I write fiction primarily because I enjoy it, but there are other reasons that all play a role. Glad you are enjoying the dicussion.

Szelsofa, I try not to judge people's decisions on why they do things. There are many good reasons for doing almost anything.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

I've really enjoyed this series of post. It makes you think. I guess what I eventually came to as a writer was simple -- the only thing I ever wanted in life was to write something that would make a reader like me who had just randomly picked up a book pass a few hours in an enjoyable way. I read a lot -- so that influences me. And I think every writer has his or her people, the group that gets it. If you're lucky, your people find you.

Charles Gramlich said...

Michelle, at least the internet seems to have created a potential way for some of us to reach those audiences who like the same thing we do, but I've found in practice it's not that easy.

jennifer said...

I have REALLY enjoyed this series of posts.

Now THIS is the writer that I most identify with (I cringe at the thought of calling myself a writer but let's face it - there ARE words on my blog).

And YES! I love the story. I love the entertainment value. I love simple words describing situations and what is in my imagination. I shy away from flowery words and details yet adore emotion. I care more for my blog readers being able to feel what I felt than to picture what I saw. Does that make sense?

The problem is that it seems like conversation more than... what.. literature? I have 'talked' the story instead of the story being told. That probably makes NO sense.

Ha! I am proving for sure that I am NOT a writer in this comment.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jennifer, I'm a big fan of seeing myself so I like that kind of thing, but truly fine writing has to have both seeing and feeling to work well. Or so it seems to me. Blogs are definitely a form of writing, although most of our blogs are sort of chatty in outlook and that is more about feeling and humor than visualization.

Miladysa said...

Ohhhh now you're scaring me! LOL

Mary Witzl said...

These posts about writing have given me so much food for thought, Charles.

I've been thinking about who I'm really writing for for a long time now and I'm still of two (or more) minds about it. I'm definitely writing to please myself in that I'm telling stories I think I'd enjoy reading. And I definitely want other writers to like what I'm writing too, though if some don't, I can live with that as long as I'm happy with what I've written. I don't care if I please critics because I've read the work that HAS pleased them, and some of it doesn't impress me at all. But when I try to imagine an audience, I feel uneasy and I think it is because I long to impress people I'd never dream of being able to impress. That doesn't mean that I disagree with you -- far from it. And it is no doubt why I remain unpublished.

Barbara Martin said...

I tend to write the type of stories I prefer to read before considering whether a reader would enjoy them.

This has been a great series, Charles, both from your posts and the comment section.

Shauna Roberts said...

I'm reading these in order and haven't gotten to nunber 4 yet. So you may already have covered this point there, and if so, I apologize.

I said earlier that I write primarily for myself. Yet because I belong to two critique groups and actively market my stories and manuscripts, you yourself might put me in the "write for others" group.

I think there's a middle ground here where I belong. I write for myself in that I write the types of stories and books that I want to read and I attempt to write what sounds beautiful and lucid to me. It doesn't bother me when people criticize my writing, partly because I have a thick skin but partly because if it pleases me, I don't care that much if it pleases others.

On the other hand, I already have a career in nonfiction and now want to make a career in fiction. I do pay attention to what my critique groups say because I want my work to be the best possible. I do pay attention to the reading level of my works because I want to have the widest audience possible.

ivan said...

This is becoming something like the argument between Bishop Berkeley and the philosopher David Hume.
It was a about mind and matter.
Everybody was splitting hairs.
Said an irritated Bishop Berkeley after arguing with Hume as to whether reality was mind or matter, he finally said, "No matter. Never mind."
But in grammar it seems even more subtle: The the use of who and whom. Doctor, you've got to re-read your Fowler. And there is a tendency also to get singulars and plurals jumbled up up here and there. "If someone was writing only for themselves, wouldn’t no one else ever know? Except, perhaps, by accident"-- Sort of register and ouch there.

But then we are a pair o' Docs, though my paper is largely buckshee, as they used to say in the military.
Trouble with us MFA's, I suppose.
We think that we are real PhD's.
Most of us go on to distributing telephone books and driving cabs. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Miladysa, judging by ROYDS that's a good thing eh?

Mary Witzl, sometime I should explore, not so much the audience, as the "need" to write. That sounds kind of like what you are talking about here.

Barbara, I've thought a time or two about writing something popular but I just can't seem to wrap my head around it.

Shauna, I have to admit, it "does" bother me when people don't like my work. I know you can't please everyone, but I still feel upset when someone really dislikes something I've done. I do get over it, though.

Ivan, I typically don't edit my blog posts as carefully for grammar as I do things I submit for publication. You got me on that one, for sure.