Do You Write for Yourself or Your Readers?
Many writers, especially new ones, talk about how they write for themselves. When we first start out, we might not know if we’ll even be able to finish the project, so it makes sense that we’re writing for ourselves.
We want to get this story out of our head. We want to see if we can write a whole novel. We want to prove to others that we can do it.
I started my first book for myself, primarily because I had this story inside my head that wouldn’t leave me alone until I wrote it down. When I begin a project, I’m still that way.
Even the most experienced authors under contract probably still feel a sense of writing for themselves during the drafting phase. If they’re anything like me, they’re just as eager to see how the story turns out as a reader.
But at some point during the writing process, the focus changes to our audience, our potential readers. And I’m not talking about as we get more experienced (or jaded). I mean as the project moves from drafting to editing.
We can still edit for ourselves. Heck, I’m a perfectionist, so I edit things past the point of where most people would notice. But on some level, editing has to be for the reader.
This is why we use beta readers. Our critique partners can help us with the craft, but our beta readers are…well, readers. We need their input to see if readers will interpret our words the way we want them to. We discover that our favorite sections need to be cut because they drag down the pacing too much. We make decisions during the editing phase that cater to our reader.
All our nitpicky choices during editing (“Should I use this word or that word?”) are really about trying to figure out how readers will interpret one option over the other. And then we decide which interpretation most closely matches our intention.
I wonder if this difference is what makes some writers hate editing. Maybe they prefer writing for themselves. Maybe editing to make the words mean what they think it should mean causes them to feel impatient. (I’ve been through the endless revision cycles, so I can understand that impatience.)
But if we want to be successful published authors, we have to edit anyway. This is why we have to listen to our critique partners and beta readers, even when we disagree with their comments. Their confusion or mistaken interpretation tells us that our words aren’t matching our intentions.
I’ve kept myself going through grueling edits by reminding myself that I feel just as giddy at the thought of sharing my work with others as I do during drafting. Oftentimes, that thought makes me more giddy, because at that future-published point, the work would be done. *smile*
Do you write for yourself, your readers, or both? Do you shift your focus during the writing process of a project? If you enjoy one step more than another, is it because of your reason for writing? Do you find it hard to write for others?Pin It
I think I flip back and forth between what I want to write and what I want the readers to read (if that makes any sense). At all times, I’m sanding down the rough edges to get to the nugget of my story. Great post!
Yes, I never go against what I (and my characters 🙂 ) want for the story. For me, it’s more like what you said – getting to the nugget of the story. The struggle is in trying to make what the reader reads match my intentions for the story as closely as possible. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
I started out writing just for myself. My first book wasn’t written to be published, I decided to do that later. My editor wanted me to cut out some crucial sections because I hadn’t made it clear how it fit into the story. I knew what was happening, and I was assuming that readers would make the same connections I had. So I added text to make the connections clear.
I still write mainly for me, but as I write I pay more attention to what I write and put down the connections that earlier on I would have inferred. I figure six months from now I may forget myself what this passage meant, so I’d better write it down. I do computer programming and the lack of documentation annoys me there as well, so I’m getting better at writing it all down.
Ooo, great thought of relating it to computer programming and making sure the documentation is there to establish connections. Yes, another big struggle for me is knowing how “spelled out” to make something. I want things to make sense and the connections to be clear without writing too “on the nose.” 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Both, really. Although, what I want from my writing is to share stories and make people happy through them. Even at my initial stages, I want to make a story that as many people as possible can enjoy. I honestly find very little to seperate between how I would write for myself and how I would write for my readers.
That’s great! Some of my stories are close to that, but others don’t fit into a genre or formula, so I’m not sure how people will see them. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
I believe a genre and formula can be found for any story. It just takes a bit of time to mentally strip it down to its most basic idea so you can work out how to make it stand out and to promote it.
I agree. I guess I should have qualified that it fits a non-recognized genre. 🙂 That might be fine for readers (assuming they can find the book once it comes out), but publishers tend to frown on that. LOL!
I write for my first reader and myself, writing stories I want to read. And yes, that writing of the first draft is my favorite part. However, my aim is to see my name on the cover of a book 🙂 and I know I need learn to edit for a broader audience.
Good point about how we’re really trying to make sure our stories appeal to a broader audience than just us. And that means people other than just us and our families or close friends (who share many of the same experiences we do) need to “get” the story too. Thanks for the comment!
I agree with you on this. I write for both, but I really pay attention to what my critique partners point out, even if it’s just a phrase that isn’t sitting well. It means something got lost in translation!
Yes! “lost in translation” That’s what this is about. 🙂 We have to translate the story in our head to a written form that others from a completely different background will be able to understand and still get the same message. Thanks for the comment!
If I was just writing for myself I wouldn’t be trying to find an agent or get published. I def. keep readers in mind but I write what I love to read – so I’m really doing both. 🙂
After I finished my first non-fan-fic novel, my family convinced me to try for publication. They gave me the you-don’t-know-unless-you-try speech. 🙂
I had to change my approach to editing after that decision. Before, I was editing to be “good enough” – no plot holes, general clarity, etc. After, I edited to the “publishable” level, which is entirely different. 🙂 Now that I’m on that path, I do both like you said. Thanks for the comment!
The story starts out, as you said, something I want out of my head. Once I complete the draft it’s all about making sure there aren’t story holes and make sure it makes sense. From there I am ready to cut, chop, change and do whatever I need to for the reader. And frankly, I am okay with that.
Yes, as long as the changes still feel true to the story and the characters, I’m good with changing whatever needs to be changed to make for a better experience for the reader. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
You know, I never really thought about it past the initial stages. And the only reason I’ve thought of THAT is that it clicked with me when I decided to just not worry and write something that was pure “fun”. Something that I would want to read, thinking maybe someone else might too. But yeah, I guess I do shift focus during editing. I think we kind of have to to some extent.
Yes, I think we have to change that focus if we want to make sure our work makes sense to a broader audience. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Jami, I think your post has a lot to say about POV, actually. One of the things I’ve learned through the critiquing/editing stage is how different other people’s POVs are from my own. When I see how someone else interprets the word or phrase I thought was clear to my meaning, I really get an window-opening into a new perspective. These kind of feedbacks help me see things through someone else’s eyes and that helps me develop the POV of my characters. 🙂
Exactly! Beta readers (especially ones who aren’t close to us – and thus share similar backgrounds) are essential for being able to see how our writing is interpreted by others. For example, in my family, we use the word “smirked” to mean a little half-smile, often with a touch of irony, teasing, or sarcasm. But I learned from other readers that the word has a negative connotation in general, so my main characters shouldn’t smirk unless they’re trying to create a negative impression. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
I write the stories I want to read. When viewed like this, I write for my “ideal reader”. However, I’m not a good judge of my own writing, so I also write for my First Reader. My son, Michael. Sadly, Michael doesn’t like my current WiP, Penny’s Luck. (It’s not his preferred genre.)
I just like telling stories. I like people hearing/reading my stories. But if I’m not interested in the story, I won’t do a good job telling it 🙂
Good point! Feedback should never pressure us into telling a story we don’t want to tell. The results wouldn’t be pretty. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
You’ve really given me something to think about here, I’m wondering if I need to change my mind-set just a little. Maybe it woud help with the editing. I’ve discovered that I’m not very good at that!
Yay! I love making people think. 🙂 Like I mentioned in a comment above, I really think there’s different types of editing we do for ourselves vs. for readers. Thanks for the comment!
As with Marc, I’m also a computer programmer, and I’ve picked a few things up from that day job.
I really like getting the stuff I’ve done into the hands of people. I want them to use it, find it useful, and I want to make their lives just a bit better for having it.
I’m finding the same applies to my writing. I don’t know whether it’s my narcissistic need to be the center of attention, my need for validation in the face of insecurities, or perhaps just a desire to share something with others that will bring a little bit of joy to their lives. (I like to think it’s the latter.)
I also just like to create, and I really want to get these stories out of my head without taking Prozac or some such.
“I really want to get these stories out of my head without taking Prozac…”
LOL! I hear you. The white coats might be stalking us, or maybe we’re just paranoid. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Honestly, I’d say that I write my first draft for me. I’m telling the story that I want to tell, getting the voices out of my head. Then, I edit for the reader. I edit to peak and keep the reader’s interest. So, I guess my answer is both.
Yep, that’s how I often approach it too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
I do the same thing, Jami. I start out with a story inside me that I have to get down on paper, a computer screen or a piece of bark. Whew!
Now the foundation is built, but hey, it needs more.
So then I add to it as I think of the reader. Who is my target audience? How can this be better?
What will make my story epic?
Thanks for a great post!
“I add to it as I think of the reader.”
Yes! Much of this “editing for the reader” step comes down to fleshing things out on the page. When we draft, we often leave the characters’ motivations a bit thin because we know what’s going on in their head. But if that isn’t on the page in some subtextual or more way, the readers won’t understand. Thanks for the comment!
Years ago when I started writing I wrote for myself. I’d scrawl all over legal pads and write stories not even realizing I could one day be published.
Then I got a laptop, met my critique partners, attended my first Georgia Romance Writers meeting, my first Romance Writers of America conference, acquired Beta readers, pitched to agents and editors, earned a boatload of requests and, well…my entire focus shifted.
I realized that I not only write stories for me, but like you, I feel giddy at the thought of others reading my work.
If I didn’t care about that I’d still be scrawling away on legal pads to this day.
I write for me, but also for the reader.
Thought provoking post Jami!
Have a great afternoon!!:)
Yes, our attitude has to shift a bit from just plain “writer” to having a eye on being a published author. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
When drafting, I write with my expected readers “in mind”, but I let the story take the course its going to take. After that pass, then the readers move to the front of the thinking. They are the ones that have to read and understand what I put down and I merge this with word choice, nuance, etc. I like drafting far more than editing but, as I want to be published, I can suffer through it for those that will one day get to enjoy it.
Great post, Jami 🙂
Ah, that vague “in mind” approach. 🙂 Actually, I do that too. My first novel was strictly for me until I made the decision to attempt to get published. The stories I’ve written since that decision are influenced by my change in mindset. Now I always have a nebulous reader “in mind” as I write to try to get my drafts closer to the final form. As you said, the story still goes where it needs to go, but I try to do a bit more fleshing out during the drafting phase. Great comment – thanks for sharing!
During my first drafts, I’m definitely only writing the story for myself – and for the characters. But when I’m starting the editing process, my focus definitely shifts and writing for the reader takes center stage. I still feel like I’m editing for myself in a small way since I look at it as something I’d want to read, so it needs to be near-perfect, but I also think about whether or not my southern phrases will be taken right way (as an example) by the audience I’m seeking.
I haven’t found any beta-readers just yet, but this is a process that I’m most looking forward to. I’ve a bit more editing to do with this second round, but I’m totally excited to get feedback from a reader’s standpoint on the book as a whole. 🙂
Yes, my perfectionist still influences my editing too. 🙂 And great example with southern phrases. Thanks for the comment!
Oh man, this is a GREAT topic, Jami. Seriously, you should consider putting together a “self-help” book about writing topics for learning/struggling/veteran writers to get them to really think about their craft. I find I can really only write for myself. I recently tried adapting my Grandma’s book into a screenplay, and I just couldn’t piece it together properly. I don’t have the same passion for HER project as SHE does. But I do know that giddy feeling of threading a story together – those beginning phases. I get so excited and, for weeks, it’s all I can talk about (quite annoying for my wife, lol). I guess with writing screenplays, it’s different. You wouldn’t “write for your readers” in the same way as if it were a novel. Because they’re interpreted differently. The way you would consider your reader for a novel, and make edits that way; is different than the way you’d edit for a screenplay, keeping certain visual elements in mind. I might change a sentence of business just to make it quicker and easier to read. I don’t have any real, experienced beta readers at this point but I am building up contacts and growing socially. So who knows. And, in writing mainly for myself and not looking at financial success as a solid goal, it’s undetermined how long it’ll take for me to finish these ideas – much like you said. But it sure does make me happy – and I guess that’s the most… — Read More »
Thank you so much for sharing that! Your take on how screenplays are different makes sense because they don’t have any character internalization or exposition to help readers know how to interpret things. Screenplay writers include a line or two to tell a character’s mood, but it’s up to the actor to “sell” that emotion. So the concept of who the “reader” is changes. Maybe the reader is the producer/director/actors, and the goal is to give them enough to work with – hopefully understanding and using your take on a scene. Interesting…thanks again for the great comment!
I feel like a reader as I write, often waiting while my characters take the story in directions I hadn’t expected. Translation: if it’s not for me first, then chances are, it’s not getting written anyway. That could, however, change with time and experience.
Nice post, Jami!
Exactly. If I don’t feel the passion for a project, it will never get written. I hope I never run into a contracted work situation where I can’t create or find that passion because that could be ugly. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Great post! I always write with the world and characters in mind. If I find them important enough to put to paper then I find them important enough to share and I want them to get out of my head! As the writing process continues it shifts to the readers that I hope will enjoy the story as much as I do writing it.
“If I find them important enough to put to paper then I find them important enough to share…”
Great way to put it! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
For better or worse, I don’t really know how to write for others. Perhaps I will learn to. Also for better or worse, I simply write the fantasy that I want to read. 🙂
Writing for others (finding what people like and writing that) is not bad, I think, as long as you put your heart and uniqueness in it. Besides, while it may be easy to discover what people like, it is not necessarily so easy to write what they like.
The way I interpret “writing for others” doesn’t mean finding out what they like and writing that story – because I can only write things I feel passionate enough to spend months on 🙂 – but it means learning how to edit the story we already have to make sure others interpret our words the way we want them to. If we want a scene to make a reader sad and instead they’re laughing, we’re doing something wrong. 🙂 So I think your take on starting out with writing what you want to read is perfect. Thanks for the comment!
Confession: I replied to your headline and then read your post. I get the subtlety of your meaning now. Amazing what happens when you actually read a post instead of assuming you know what it means. 🙂
LOL! No worries. I often use my replies to clarify my point. 🙂 (And headlines often are “controversial” to get people interested. 😉 )
My English instructor (yes, I take English, but if you can’t tell, its because it’s early in the semester), recently said reading, writing and thinking are like the Holy Trinity, triune, three-in-one, inseparable. If that is true, as I believe it is, then, by extension, when we are writing for others, we are writing for ourselves as well.
“I take English, but if you can’t tell, its because it’s early in the semester”
LOL! And your instructor’s perspective is interesting. Thanks for sharing!
[…] Gold asks us Do You Write for Yourself or Your Readers? She goes on to discuss the importance of using beta readers to gain external input, and notes […]
The first novel I wrote? I thought I was writing it for my audience, but no….it was all for me.
My second novel I plotted with Kristen and Piper. Even though it had ‘me’ written all over it, it was soley for my readers.
But, my second novel was put on hold when I was asked to adapt a teleplay I’d co-written into a novel. Originally, the pilot script was something I’d never thought of writing before. I like mystery and crime, and this was paranormal. But, as the characters were built, I fell in love with them. I am writing this novel for my audience. I like to frighten and shock, and that is purely aimed at my reader….however, I’m secretly harbouring a crush on my male protagonist (and that is something which is all mine).
Great post, Jami xx
“I’m secretly harbouring a crush on my male protagonist (and that is something which is all mine).”
LOL! I can’t relate to that at all. *whistles innocently* 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
I don’t struggle with this as much as I used to. The first time I ever wrote a story, I was 5 years old. And I took it very personally that that story wasn’t of the same quality as the books I was soaking in, even at that age. I wanted to be good enough for people to know what I meant NOW, not have to actually, heaven forbid, work for it. This annoyance continued to the point where I refused to write more than the odd tidbit of my stories on paper for around 6 more years. I can even be quoted by people as saying that someone needs to invent a machine that can communicate a person’s thoughts to another person, so that other people could see and experience my stories, too (I was a highly imaginative creature; my friends always played in my stories as main characters, even if I refused to write the things down back then). When I was around 11 or 12 years old, I started writing stories, poems, and songs down on paper, despite the annoying translation difficulties (why can’t other people just see what I see?). It was more of a compulsion that I’d been fighting most of my life, and, plus, people don’t look at you as weird when you walk around talking to yourself at that age if you have an excuse like you’re writing a book. I can honestly say I have always wrote my stories (both in my… — Read More »
LOL! Yes, it’s work to make writing look easy. And that translation from the movie in our minds to others understanding our intentions is tricky. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!