The Second-Trickiest Question to Ask a Writer

Cheever QuoteThe first is, of course, the tedious, “Where do you get your ideas?” But the second is almost as tricky: “Who do you write for?”

This is the question that separates the goats from the sheep… Or the professionals from the amateurs.

Most successful writers have given this subject careful thought. Why? Because the professional knows how important it is to have a focus for their fiction. Many writers have a demographic in mind: middle-class, 30-45 years of age, mostly female, etc., but some have created one specific reader and can describe him or her with the sort of detail a forensic psychologist would envy: His name is Geoffrey with a G. He’s 49, divorced, with two children. He is a podiatrist and he’s tired of all the foot doctor jokes. His favourite colour is burgundy and he drinks Bud Light. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia and is a registered Democrat…

The non-professional writer very often has no idea who his reader is. The very question of readership leaves him perplexed, even uncomfortable. They don’t understand the point. Art is just art, right? If I write for myself, other people will get it. In fact, some writers will claim that having a specific audience in mind limits them. Limiting yourself is bad, they claim. Art should have no limits.

Let’s think about that for a moment. Art should have no limits. Is this true?

I could meander down a convoluted avenue of thoughts here about the nature of art and the dabbler versus, say, Jackson Pollock. Best mate Jane would say Pollock is a dabbler. Plebeian! But for the purpose of this article, I want to stay focused on writing and the intended reader. (I’ll return to the subject of art and limitations at a later date, though.)

Writing is communication which, by its very nature, requires more than one person. Your dotty Aunt Agatha who talks to herself when she walks down the street isn’t communicating. Now, you may argue if someone interrupts the flow of Aunt Agatha’s monologue and starts a conversation with her it becomes communication. True. But you must see that it only becomes meaningful if a second party is brought in.

When you sit down to write a letter, you’re thinking of the recipient, right? That’s true even of emails. When a screenwriter pitches a movie or a TV series to a production company, she has to know who’ll be watching. The whole idea behind, “This is Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the 21st century….” suggests the intended audience is the same demographic who loved Buffy. When Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to Desilu Studios, he described it as “Wagon Train to the stars.” He was suggesting that people who loved the old western series would thrill to see the same themes–exploration, survival in a hostile environment, etc.–in outer space. Again, it’s the same demographic.

So, why does it matter? Think of it this way: If your usual reader is a very conservative woman from the bible belt in her sixties; she’s probably not going to care for your kinky bedroom jokes. Then again, if you’re writing for hip boys and girls who are exploring their sexuality, they may not like your hero being a 50-something fire and brimstone preacher.  The audience matters. Don’t kid yourself otherwise.

Last week at my writers’ group I asked the question: “So, gang, who do you write for?” The question resulted in lots of staring at the floor and shuffling of feet. Then a few moments later, one of our older members started talking about her childhood of self-harm, depression and despair. She began to write, she said, because the alternative for her was suicide. Her admission unleashed a stream of similar confessions. A man who has only been with us a few weeks revealed he had gone through a period of mutism as a child, and writing literally helped him to find his voice. Another admitted that writing was so essential a part of her life she no longer tried to explain it. She just knew she needed it. Writing, it seemed, was a lifeline for almost everyone.

None of these answers were what I expected. I didn’t return to the original question because what emerged and the subsequent conversation were far more interesting. Still, I would have liked an answer. I asked the question, not because I like ruffling feathers (well, much), but because I was genuinely curious and because I wanted them to think about the subject. I’ve noticed even in our little group there is a widely diverse attitude towards the craft. There’s the man who writes witty tales and poems, but cannot be bothered to rewrite. He doesn’t care about being published. He just likes being with other writers and having us laugh at his pieces. Then there’s the woman who sees the writers’ group as a social event. If we were knitting or painting teapots it wouldn’t make much difference to her. One writer is also an artist and she sees writing as part of her creative journey.  The primary thing most of these people have in common is that connecting with an audience is of less interest to them than unraveling the knot inside themselves. The only reader they are interested in is themselves.

But of course, all of their answers didn’t really answer the question. I didn’t ask my little group why do you write; I asked, “who do you write for?” Their replies made it obvious they write exclusively for themselves. What’s curious is not one of them ever seems to have considered the reader. Now, obviously, the writer’s first audience is herself. We write the books or stories we want to read. But the professional never forgets that eventually strangers will read his or her work.

In a New York Times article, author and Nobel Prizewinner Orhan Pamuk said,

Writers write for their ideal reader, for their loved ones, for themselves or for no one. All this is true. But it is also true that today’s literary writers also write for those who read them. From this we might infer that today’s literary writers are gradually writing less for their own national majorities (who do not read them) than for the small minority of literary readers in the world who do. New York Times

Pamuk’s comments about why we write are as insightful and eloquent as you can imagine. In fact, don’t imagine. Go and read what he has to say. I promise you, the time will be well spent.

For me, the line, “writers also write for those who read them,” is one of the most meaningful. We may write for ourselves first and foremost, but we want to be able to share our work with others. Perhaps that’s your mother or spouse or members of your writing group, but we need that validation to keep going.

Sometimes new writers are urged to imagine their ideal reader. For me, this is someone who is intelligent, has good taste, and reads carefully. She (or he) gets my jokes, loves my writing, but always wants me to strive for greatness. My ideal reader has an eye for the carefully-crafted sentence, but also appreciates the big picture.

Alas, as Pamuk concludes:

There is no such thing as an ideal reader, free of narrow-mindedness and unencumbered by social prohibitions or national myths, just as there is no such thing as an ideal novelist. But a novelist’s search for the ideal reader – be he national or international – begins with the novelist’s imagining him into being, and then by writing books with him in mind.

There may be no such thing as the ideal reader (though best mate Jane comes close), but we still need to imagine such a person. Writing is a solitary activity and requires the writer to be in their heads most of the time. But the thing we write has to connect with other people. As John Cheever says, it’s like a kiss. It needs other people.


About Geri Schear

Geri Schear is an award-winning novelist, author of three Sherlock Holmes and Lady Beatrice books published by MX Publishing. Her short stories have appeared in a number of journals. For further information, see her page at Amazon:
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3 Responses to The Second-Trickiest Question to Ask a Writer

  1. asajane says:

    I think I was much ruder than that about Pollock 🙂


  2. Pingback: Take It to the Limit | Geri Schear

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