Who Are You Writing For?

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Pity the reader. –Kurt Vonnegut

There may be as many reasons to write as there are writers, but most if not all can be lumped into three categories:

  1. self-expression and creative fulfillment
  2. sharing information, entertainment, and/or inspiration
  3. calling readers to action (e.g. political, spiritual, commercial)

Of the three, only the first reason allows for the possibility of not taking readers into consideration—and then only if the writer plans to leave the writing on a shelf.

Otherwise, we write to connect. We have something to say and want others to hear it.

It’s surprising then how easy it is, putting words to paper, to forget the reader. It’s alarmingly common, for example, to read political commentary that assumes its readers already agree with its author. Otherwise, it wouldn’t insult people who don’t—the very people whose minds the author is trying to change.

Another kind of disregard for readers is self-indulgence. Our own voice seduces us; it warps a piece of writing into a showcase of our intelligence, wit, expertise, or sophistication. Nobody wants to read that. Except the writer—until she finally acknowledges these motivations and winces at how transparent the preening must have been all along to everyone else. Guilty.

Sometimes we get hung up on our vision for a piece of writing. I understand the integrity of creative expression, and writing (particularly poetry and experimental fiction) is art. But if we want that vision to land we must follow Vonnegut's advice.

A writer I met recently was frustrated with her book editor. The editor suggested adding background and context. Telling me this story, the writer made a face. “That wasn’t what my focus was,” she said. She didn’t want to emphasize that.

This line struck me, because I both recognized the sentiment behind it—what writer hasn’t felt thwarted and misunderstood when sharing her work?—and agreed with the editor.

The writer seemed to forget her purpose for writing, which was to explain an important problem so her readers would do something about it. Frankly, it didn’t matter if she didn’t want to emphasize that. Assuming readers needed it for understanding, she had to include it.

I’m no expert in her topic and don’t know her readership, so I can’t make the call, but the editor’s suggestion sounded solid. If the writer had said, “My readers already know that,” or “Readers don’t need to know that,” okay. But her reluctance wasn’t reader related.

So how do we pity the reader? One way is to put ourselves in his shoes and ask, “If I didn’t know this author, what would I get out of reading this?

Is the writing entertaining? Insightful? Informative? Inspiring? Does it shed some light on the human condition?

Pitying the reader is a mindset. It may be one you set aside while writing the first draft—at that point, it’s best to let it all fly—but it is one you must adopt when revising and editing.

But Where Do I Start?

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There comes a time when it strikes you that you have got some stories to tell. You have something to say! You’ve seen some crazy s**t in your lifetime; you’ve come through some harrowing times. Now, you’re on the other side of those experiences, but they’re hanging around in your heart and your mind.

Or it strikes you one day, after a decade or so in a field, that you that you know a hell of a lot about a subject, and that this is a subject other people should know about.

There’s something there. Something worth sharing, or maybe even simply something worth documenting, remembering, or exploring.

But, damn. What do you do with it? How do you even start?

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik once wrote that writing is “turning time into language.”

So you start with time.

You put it on your calendar. Maybe it’s an hour on a Tuesday night—maybe an hour every Tuesday night. Or maybe it’s a chunk of a Saturday afternoon.

Then you consider space.

You pick your writing happy place—maybe the far end of the couch. Maybe that one table in the back of the coffee shop. You get there early enough to order your coffee, to brew your tea.

You bring your beverage to your happy place. You silence your phone and put out of sight. You open your laptop or your paper notebook. On your laptop, you turn off the WiFi and maximize the window—in your paper notebook you turn to a clean page—so there’s nothing to see but a sheet of white paper. Maybe you set a timer, maybe you don’t, but you definitely do not do anything—anything—else for the time you’ve carved out of your life for this important work.

And then you write. Easy, right?

No? No. It’s not easy. Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe you will stare at the blank page for a long, long time.

Maybe you’ll type a sentence, but as soon as you see it on the page, you’ll decide this writing is for other people, who are you kidding, and you’ll want to delete it immediately. Don’t. Instead, hit return a few times, or turn to a new page, or open a new document, and try again.

Maybe you write a sentence, and it makes you think of another one, and then another and another until your tea has grown cold and your timer goes off. (You are very lucky if this happens to you.)

Most likely it’s something in between. Some good sentences, some sentences that embarrass you, some long stretches of time with nothing happening.

Be patient. Love yourself. But, as writer Ron Carlson has put it, “Whatever you do, stay in the room.”

Because the secret to turning “time into language” is to spend the time.

At this point, that’s all that matters. At this point, you’re just getting started. Down the road, you’ll re-read that language, and some of it will please you and a some of it won’t. (If all of it pleases you, this writing thing really may not be for you, because humility and an ability to see ways to improve our writing are key qualities for writers.) Down the road, you can think about showing it to someone else—a writing group or a friend or a teacher or a coach—and that person can help you tease out and polish the parts with potential and identify and discard the parts that aren’t so brilliant.

But for now, it’s about time. Make the time.