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Should you be writing for yourself or for your readers?

Unless you're writing pages of prose and tossing them directly into the fireplace before the ink dries, there is a symbiotic relationship between writer and reader - even if that reader is just a later version of yourself. But how much should you be thinking about the reader, or end user, during the development of a piece of writing? This week we asked the Write Yorkshire scribble whether they think you should be writing for yourself or your prospective readers.

My knee-jerk answer to this question was to say, myself, always myself, for the reason that I don’t even think about whether my stuff is going to see the light of day while I’m writing it. Writing feels like a private ritual between me and the page; I don’t think much about who else is going to read it, especially at the drafting stage.

But then I thought a little more, and realised that the process of redrafting is the point at which my awareness of the reader kicks in. At this stage, I write and rewrite until I can run an eye over every sentence without feeling a single snag or burr. For whom am I doing that, if not for the reader? If I know what I wanted to say, what should it matter if that metaphor is a bit strained, or that sentence is a bit unbalanced? Why do we use effects such as metaphors and similes, if we’re not trying to project what is in our heads into other people’s? Why provide handy comparisons, if we’re not trying to help people relate to our images?

Writers are communicators; words are our medium. We have to have some kind of third party in mind at some point in the writing process, even if it’s just a possible future self that we don’t want to be cringing in years to come. It’s just a case of when we let them in. For me, if an imagined reader is peering over my shoulder in the early stages, I’m never going to get the story off the ground. It’s only when I start to feel confident that whatever I’m writing has potential that I allow myself to believe that someone, somewhere, might read it someday - and that’s when I start to show off.

Before you ask yourself this question, ask yourself these ones first: Do I want this work to be read? Do I want my reader to enjoy my book / story and recommend it to others? Do I want my reader to a) finish the book and b) buy and read the next one?

Do you see where I’m going with this?

I was a little bit surprised that several of the tutors on my Creative Writing Masters didn't put a great deal of stock or value on writing text which was accessible and engaging for the prospective reader. If you're writing to be read, then you're entering into a contract with the reader. Bear with me, give me your valuable time. I won't disappoint you.

I’ve read, in the course of said Masters, some books which were intentionally written to be extremely “challenging”. Honestly, I felt like the writer was laughing in my face whilst rolling about in the money which I regretted, within very few pages, handing over for the book.

I live with the terrible knowledge that I physically don’t have enough lifetime to read every book in existence that I would love - especially given that I like to return to my favourites again and again. I don’t have time to read shit books.

I believe that you should enjoy writing - whether it’s for publication or web publication or self publication or yourself. So yes, you should be writing for yourself. However, the answer to this question is not mutually exclusive. If you’re going to enter into a contract with a reader, where they exchange their precious time for the privilege (your privilege) of reading your work, then you absolutely need to spare a thought for that reader during the writing process.

At the very least: proof-read; put your work through an editor; aim to be engaging; continuously work on the quality of your prose. If you’re creating something you expect people to buy, then take out or rework everything you have to explain as ‘the reader needs to know this but don’t worry, it gets interesting after chapter three’...

In my opinion, it’s a question of respect. You want your reader to respect you and your work, show some respect to your reader.

I'm going to be honest. I'm a fence sitter for this question. I'm very firmly in the middle of two arguments and I just can't pick a side, so I'll apologise in advance!

On the one hand, I usually write for myself. Even when given a task, it tends to be for me in some way or another. Writing is a hugely cathartic activity, so it just makes sense that I write for the audience that's experienced my life first hand, which is me, myself and I. With that being said, I still love when someone reads a piece I've written and can relate to or really enjoys it. I just can't say their experience was my priority.

On the other hand, if you want to be a super successful writer, then you have to capture a large audience. So, realistically, you probably have to write for your prospective readers. Or, at the very least, take them into serious consideration while planning, writing and editing. It sounds very calculated, but actually some writers’ joy comes from other people's experiences of their work; it's not always about the success. Sometimes, it's just about knowing you can make some laugh or cry with words you've written.

I don't think they have to be exclusive either, sometimes your reader is supposed to be you or people very similar to you. In which case, it makes sense to write for yourself because, simultaneously, you're also writing for your intended reader.

I really don't think it matters where you sit for this one, even if you're a sinful fence sitter like me, as long as you're writing in the way that works for you, whose business is it anyway?

I’m not sure about this one. My initial reaction is to say write for yourself, nobody else matters and you should write whatever and however you want to. But on the other hand, I have to wonder if there’s any use writing stuff that nobody else will read.

Funnily enough, I saw a discussion on twitter about this recently. Somebody had posted the question: “Would you still write if you knew nobody else was going to read it?” and it got me thinking. The replies were pretty varied. Some users insisted that they couldn’t stop writing if they tried. Others suggested that they wouldn’t put themselves through the stress and hard-work that comes with writing just for it to sit in the void. One response which made me laugh remarked that nobody reads their writing now anyway, so what’s the difference?

As for me, I like to think I would still write. I’m sure I would in some form. I’d definitely still write poetry because for me poetry is like a form of therapy, a way to clear the head and process emotions and thoughts. I think that I would still write other stuff too, just maybe less often than I do now. I wouldn’t be writing this for myself if nobody was going to read it and that’s a shame. Writing for other people helps keep me busy and motivated. If I have an assignment or a deadline to meet, that’s writing for other people.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that writing for other people can be a good thing and should be embraced, while also staying true to yourself. Write for yourself in regards to content. Write for yourself and write whatever you feel like writing, but don’t feel ashamed for paying attention to what others want as well.


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Cover image by Angel Hernandez via Pixabay


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