Who Are You Writing For?

Who Are You Writing For?

In a writing class of mine was one writer whose story was actually painful to read. It was so overwrought with lurid, convoluted language that often his sentences made no sense at all. All of his characters were martial-arts supermen. All of his characters were philosophers. All of his characters were the strong, silent, mysterious type. As I slogged my way through his story, I wondered how he could read his own writing and not see what was blindingly clear to everyone else.

And then he started discussing his story and the answer was obvious.

He was speaking just like his characters. He was laboring to use Latinate phrases and obscure words that didn’t quite mean what he was trying to make them mean. He was young, and a little nervous, and he was trying to project an image of a learned, confident, mysterious philosopher. If he’d had an opportunity to demonstrate some martial arts, he probably would have done that as well.

He was trying to project an image of himself to the reader the same way he was trying to project an image to those of us in the room. And that got me thinking about who or what we are writing our stories for. I think it breaks down to three reasons that I think most of us have to work through:

Level 1: You’re writing so readers will say, “You’re cool.”

Level 2: You’re writing so readers will say, “This story is cool.”

Level 3: You’re writing so readers will say, “Life is cool.”

The earlier writer was writing at stage one. He was writing with himself in mind. “What will the reader think of me when they read this?”

Maybe it’s possible to write something good this way, but I can’t do it and I can’t see how to do it. A reader is giving you some of their precious time, and what they want is something in return. You’d better deliver it because writing a story with yourself in mind is the equivalent of cornering someone at a party and grilling them on what they think about you. Nobody wants to be in that corner.

More often than not, you want the reader to forget there is even an author involved. This is how people can love stories by authors they hate personally; the author disappeared in the reading. If you find yourself thinking about what the reader will think of you as you write each word, it might be time to stop and consider why you’re writing the piece to begin with.

“This story is cool.” Hey, that’s about the best praise any writer is going to get! This is when you’re confident enough to not care what the reader thinks of you, and competent enough to hide yourself from view. When you choose the next word, you’re thinking, “What will this do to the reader’s opinion of the story?” You’re seeing the story as a work of art, and you’re creating it to be admired like a sculpture in a museum; lots of people standing around and saying, “Wow. That’s cool.” You get the pride of being its creator, but you’re a separate entity—it’s not about you.

For what it’s worth, I think most stories I read fall into this category. I like to read story-centric pieces and I write a lot of story-centric pieces, but it does have one main drawback in that it can be somewhat meaningless. To stretch the museum analogy further, it’s like people admiring your sculpture, only to forget about it when they leave the museum. The art, the impact of your work stays sitting in the museum. What you want is for that impact to infect everyone who sees it, and to leave the museum in the hearts of all of them.

That’s the last stage: “Life is cool.”

I think the stories that resonate with people, that become classics, that leave the museum with people, are the ones in which the author is not concentrating on impressing the reader with himself, and is not concentrating on creating a stand-alone work of art, but rather is concentrating fully on the reader. This is when you are choosing the word and thinking, “What will this do to the reader’s opinion of herself? Of her outlook on life?” If you write with that in mind, I believe you write a piece that has real meaning. This is where not only the author disappears, but the story itself disappears. The reader is no longer thinking along the lines of a story, but along the lines of how they are feeling and responding. You probably love when you close a book or short story and have to stare out the window for a few minutes because you’re seeing the world a little differently. You’ve taken the art’s impact out of the museum with you, and will probably carry it around now for life.

Give your readers that same gift.