I’m not an either-or kind of guy. It’s not, “Chocolate OR peanut butter.” The correct word in that question is “and.” And the correct answer is, “Yes.”

With writing “rules” and in many other parts of life, I trend toward the both-and philosophical framework. Sometimes, two opposing statements can both be true.

This came into focus last week, as I was reading some material in preparation for leading a 12-week study group focused on Julia Cameron’s classic text on creativity and art: The Artist’s Way.

It came up in a way that had me questioning myself as a teacher, and that was a scary moment.

Writing for an Audience

The topic of “who do you write for” appeared simultaneously in several places, and a certain argument against writing for an audience resonated with me.

It went something like this: If you are writing for a specific audience, your work will be limited and won’t reach the full creative potential; you will end up pandering or producing text that feels more like a sales pitch than a story, even if that feeling is only subconscious.

These thoughts rang true for me, but I immediately had a moment of panic: I often tell new writers (especially) to imagine their ideal audience when they are writing. This isn’t the sort of advice I give in a blanket manner, typically, but when someone is stuck and looking to find their voice, I do bring it up.

If the advice about not limiting our work is true, how many writers have I guided down the wrong path??

Qualified Advice

It took me a few days of thinking through this issue to conclude that I hadn’t completely ruined anyone’s budding literary career. In fact, there are likely a couple of people out there who would not have made the progress they did without the “bad” advice of imagining an audience.

This is especially helpful advice for my Legacy of Words students and clients: people who are writing about their life story, without necessarily looking for the formal structure of an auto-biography or memoir.

Many of the Legacy writers I’ve worked with have declared, boldly, and sometimes almost angrily, that they “aren’t writers” and they doubt their ability to produce. Some are writers of other forms (grant writers, prolific letter writers, academic writers) who are having trouble shifting into a different, more reflective gear.

For these writers, specifically, the advice to “picture your audience” is a valid way beyond the creative blockage. If the writer is feeling self-centered and reluctant to write “all about me,” then picturing the grandchild, niece, nephew, or other loved one they hope will read about their life is a great incentive to get them started. Someone else who says, “The blank page is too much, I don’t know where to begin,” can certainly benefit from the idea: Pretend your best friend is across the table from you at a restaurant and tell them what it is you want to say.

It’s not just legacy writers. How many poets have started to put words on the page because they had a specific someone in mind—someone they very much hoped would see and hear the words they were writing?

Even some fiction writers do well to envision an audience, at least to get started. There are a number of people for whom the advice, “Just write for yourself,” will fall flat. It doesn’t work.

Obvious Exceptions

It is impractical to believe most writers don't have some responsiveness to their audience. Writing for someone else's expectations and to satisfy some fickle audience may impact creativity and growth, but it is a part of the publishing equation for most writers.
It is impractical to believe most writers don’t have some responsiveness to their audience. Writing for someone else’s expectations and to satisfy some fickle audience may impact creativity and growth, but it is a part of the publishing equation for most writers.

There are some writing applications that simply MUST be taken on with a specific audience in mind. Copywriting and advertising can be very creative, but if ad copy forgets the audience and serves to only speak to the writer, it is bad ad copy.

Academic and much non-fiction writing has to at least keep the would-be reader in mind, in some way, or it becomes nonsensical. (I’m sorry, but most academic writing is nearly indecipherable unless you’ve spent a lot of time learning the special language of the hoity-toity, over-stuffed, unnecessarily obscure gibberish of academia. Steven Pinker’s great book, A Sense of Style, makes this point so well, and in such an engaging way.)

Genre writers are often very much bound to consider the audience as they write, and if they do not, they will be either “encouraged” to alter the text or rejected altogether. (Until, of course, they have a solid enough track record to be allowed the latitude to bend the rules, but cross-genre writing is a topic for another day.)

And, in the modern publishing world where the ability of the author to self-promote is often a critical factor in the publishing chances for a book, one of the first questions a writer is asked is, “Who’s the target audience for this book?”

“Everyone,” isn’t an acceptable answer. Describing the “ideal reader” these days resembles the specificity of high-priced jury consultants: “We should target our online advertising toward women between 30 and 45 years of age with one to three children and a part-time job and no more than mild religious affiliation.”

Writing for Creative Growth

The truth resides somewhere in between the For an Audience and For Yourself extremes.

If continued creative growth is your goal, then tuning out the voices (internal and external) that say you CAN’T do this or you’ll NEVER get away with that is an important skill to learn. Writing to tell the story you can’t find on the shelf of already published books, to take Toni Morrison’s words and re-use them here, is a grand and noble ideal. It is the stuff that separates forgettable summer reads from artistic masterpieces.

But completely ignoring the fact that you want SOMEONE to read your work, other than you and the critique group members who are forced to listen, can also lead to trouble. It can make the work unreadable, and unpublishable.

There are writers who legitimately fall into the two extreme camps. There are writers who will write anything, despite their own beliefs, feelings, and artistic convictions, if they think it will sell. And there are those writers for whom publication or sharing of the work is not a concern: they don’t care if anyone reads it.

The rest of us though? We likely fall somewhere in the middle—today leaning one way, tomorrow tilting back the other way. Because of that, we should be aware of both extremes, and then find our solid footing.

Whenever someone submits a piece to me and it is filled with unconventional approaches to writing, I always point out the reasons this might not work for an editor or publisher or reader: An 800-page novel in second person, future tense is hard on the reader; Switching point-of-view orientation mid-sentence causes confusion; 24 point of view characters makes it hard for the reader to know who to root for and invest in; The decision to not use any punctuation or line breaks, and the number of “alternate spellings” mean this work has to be SPECTACULAR to get even mild interest…etc.

But I also always say, “This is your story. You have to decide. Yes, it worked for __insert favorite example of the exception to the rule__ but, you aren’t __that author__. The more difficult the piece is to pull off, the better you have to be as a writer. It’s harder to make it work, but there can be a big payoff if you do.”

I say this to other writers, because I have to say it to myself, too. Yes, pushing the boundaries of my own writing is important. Take a chance. See what happens. Grow, evolve, become a better writer. To do that, I can’t write the same kinds of stories, with the same tone, the same voice. And yet, just because I try something different doesn’t mean it will speak to anyone else, other than me. Sometimes, that’s okay. Other times, I inch myself back in the direction of the audience, and that’s okay, too.

Both pieces of advice are true, and there are an infinite number of combinations. Find what is right for you.

Are You Writing For Yourself or Your Audience?