I recently read a post called, What Baking Taught Me about Writing and the analogy was quite sweet and satisfying until I got to the last bite: Learn to Please Your Audience.
She writes, “In order to please your literary audience, you must learn their wants, desires, and needs and write to that instead of composing whatever crosses your brain. Selfish writers never changed anyone’s life.”
What?! Me, selfish? A blogger blogging about me? 😛
Okay. Sure. I get her baker’s confection. But I also think this is bad advice regardless of what you are cookin’ in the oven. I mean, am I crazy? (Don’t answer that.)
In an effort to understand her point of view, I thought, maybe this depends on what kind of writing you are doing, and for what purpose. Journalism? Fiction? Advertising? But aren’t the best journalists the ones who are groundbreaking, going beyond what is expected, and taking risks?
Then I thought about the business idea: anticipate what the audience/customer needs and wants before they even know they need it. Extremely successful companies are built around this principle. Or they tackle a niche that previously went unnoticed. Sooo…
In Andrew Stanton’s TED talk: The clues to a great story, he shares how he and his gang didn’t want to create an animation firm the way it had been previously done (ala Disney), so they set up rules like “No songs.” “No happy village.” “No love story!” in order to prove that animation could be done in a new way (ala Pixar). Hello, success!
Sometimes an audience won’t even know what makes a great story. They just know that they like it. They are surprised, taken somewhere, some place over there, special, crazy, pedestrian but underground, and if I’m too distracted trying to please you, I might end up doing the exact opposite.
You know, I wasn’t going to write this but her response to my comment got me thinking and thinking. It went against what I believed to be true. And then I found Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys’ blog. He’s a fiction writer and I am not, so when I read this, I felt validated.
“The possible opinions and tastes of everyone outside yourself shouldn’t factor in while you’re creating your story.”
The important distinction is when you are in the act of creating, writing, focusing on your craft, I don’t think you should be thinking about the desires and wants of the audience.This kills creativity, fosters confusion and probably makes you doubt what your inner voice is telling you. Now later, when you need fresh eyes for the editing or feedback, sure, bring those colleagues and friends in to the fold.
But egats, you can’t even interview what people want, because usually they just tell what they think you want to hear!
I called a friend who is a digital artist, and told him what I was thinking, just to make sure I wasn’t getting excited for no reason. I needed perspective. He shared: Van Gogh was not popular during his time, he was doing something that was different than mainstream. He couldn’t even really draw very well. But he used colors in a new way. Now everyone knows who Van Gogh is.
If Van Gogh did what his audience wanted, he probably would have worked hard to fit in, ‘draw better’ and paint in the style that everyone liked and understood.
Does this mean the audience is evil? No, of course not. But I think you should write down whatever crisscrosses you mind. You should go with your flash in a pan intuition. This is the rockier, often forgotten, but ultimately more rewarding road.
Sometimes we write, sing, and draw uncomfortable things, difficult to swallow moments that need to be lifted off our chests. The cliche ‘it’s about the journey, not the destination’ is a cliche for good reason.
When I wrote about my Waldorf teaching experience, I did it because I needed to. I needed to dissect it, stare at it, let it go, and because I thought my story had value and should be shared. As I wrote, it was important to bring to the situation an, as objective a point of view as possible, and yes, I thought about what folks would want to know about the circumstances around my firing.
However, I’m not interested in people pleasing for the sake of a bigger audience. And because of the controversial nature of Waldorf education, it would be easy to sally over to the anti-Waldorfers and gain their adoration, but that’s not what my story is about. I want readers to make up their own minds, and I don’t mind if we disagree.
What I’ve found through sharing my experience is my story has value for others too. They’ve emailed me long emails telling me their stories. It’s been amazing! I think this is how it’s supposed to work. I don’t think writing whatever crisscrosses my mind makes me selfish.
I come from a working class family that sees what I do as a waste of time and energy, better spend at a comfortable and safe job. They love me and I love them, and I understand that. But when I was unemployed, using my time to write, I was considered lazy.
Anyone who is engaged in creating, and writing knows, it’s anything but lazy work.
No, I don’t mind criticism. I don’t mind hitting delete. I don’t mind changing what I write for the sake of clarity or because the audience wants to know more about this or that part of the story. I’ve learned this is actually the worthwhile part of editing and feedback.
I don’t know. Maybe by learning what your audience wants and needs, you make more money. Maybe you gain more fans. Maybe you learn to do it better. Maybe I’m wrong. And maybe I’ll write a book called The Selfish Writer and change the world…
17 replies on “Who do you write for? (an audience or you?)”
“Writing for your audience” sounds like a nice way of saying “dumbing down your material to spoon-feed the lowest common denominator”. I think the early Beatles probably catered to their imaginary audience, and the later Beatles felt they could do whatever they wanted, got really creative, psychedelic, and more hard-edged. The early music was kinda’ charming, but the later stuff is much more interesting and rewarding to listen to. In my case, I have a rule, which is that if I don’t like something I’ve made, I don’t expect anyone else to either. I can’t quite imagine making something that I anticipated others would like, but which I thought was crap.
I think it’s a genuine struggle.
I’m reminded of musicians, whose first album was poetic or different and then their follow up is labeled ‘a sophomore effort’. This seems to be due to the fact that they stressed out over what their audience liked and wanted.
Other artists understand this and share their version of a ‘getting away from the world’ approach in an attempt to be themselves and listen to what they want to do.
The latter approach doesn’t always pay off, but I think in the long run, it will feel more rewarding and part of the musical score of a musicians history, rather than feeling like they ‘sold out’.
Interesting point. The Beatles or Picasso became so famous that they then had the freedom to do whatever they wanted. Other artists start out doing interesting and adventurous stuff and then “go commercial” and produce boring crap for the rest of their careers.
Excellent! Most of the blogging advice I read says to write for yourself. That’s what blogging IS. Blogging is inherently personal, even when it serves to inform readers about topics, it (at least originally) began as a personal log. Web log. Blog. Anyhow, people will realize if you’re just writing to please an audience, and since you can’t please everyone, you’ll constantly be flipping back and forth between topics you don’t even care about in an effort to get readers who don’t really connect with you. It’s much better and much more productive to write what you want and develop a small, loyal following of like-minded people who will love what that you write from your heart. That’s the heart of blogging, folks.
Loved the post! 🙂
Thanks dear. Sounds like you could write a thing or two on the subject yourself 😛
And while I would be love (would I???) to be loved by all, and please my readers and audience, it doesn’t always work that way. I know what it’s like to be a people pleaser and sometimes it’s not appreciated! And that hurts…
Besides, relationships are usually messier than a simple ‘give and take’. Sigh.
So true. Also, please please write a book called “The Selfish Writer.” I would so buy that.
The more I work on the level of fiction, the more I see how much of what I do is informed by weird connections to my sub- or un-conscious mind. When things work well and an idea moves from a few sentences towards a novel (or a short story) the unconscious is intimately involved. I’ve learned to work hard to stay open to that. It’s scary. It’s exhilarating. It’s surprising. It can also almost be deadly. For more on that, you might want to look at this piece I just posted today — “When Novels Become Assassins.” http://davidbiddle.net/when-novels-become-assassins-the-problem-with-writing-on-the-edge/
Great point and good advice. I’ll take a look and thanks David for the fiction writers point of view!
I wish I had read your post before I had deleted one of mine from the other day. It was on a difficult subject and I was concerned about coming across as whiny instead of being well-honed after decades of experience. Maybe I will revisit the subject matter.
Thank you for reminding me to be “me”.
If I’m scared to publish something, I usually do it because I figure the fear is a good thing. It’s making me realize I care about the content or I’m afraid of being perceived a particular way.
And the thing is, some folks will understand your point of view and others will not. This is just the way life is and I think the quicker we accept this, the easier writing, creating, sharing, and being yourself will be. At least, that has been my experience.
I hope you do revisit the subject matter. Sometimes its good to let it sit for awhile and come back to it. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!
Visiting from NaBloPoMo and so glad I did. I loved your post. Writing solely for others sounds soul-sucking and a really great way to end up with writer’s block. Blogging is writing and writing is an art form. I’m not interested in reading what a target audience supposedly wants, I want something genuine. Something that sprang forth from someone’s crazy brain and is going to make me pause, with wide eyes, and be astounded. And while I can get into the idea of being inspired by a topic that other people are currently interested in, I’m not going to force myself to write about something just because it will make me more popular. Having devoted followers and/or making money from blogging would be great, but it’s not why most of us do it. And I believe it is often the death of a person’s career (regardless of their art) when they attempt to please everyone.
I’m glad you did too! And very well put. It seems so ironic but once we start to orient ourselves to please others, we end up losing ourselves in the mix. I think it’s important to encourage others and remind ourselves to write and create from within. Thank you Jess.
Good for her. I hope it works out for her. Maybe she has a narrow focus so she knows exactly who her audience is or who she wants them to be.
I on the other hand am all over the map. Heck I even have two blogs, one for food and one for “everything else”! I also do not have the ambition to change anyone’s life. Maybe give someone another perspective occassionally, but other than that they are on their own.
I think because you are not trying to change anyone’s life, you are more likely to do so. That seems to be the irony of all things under the sun and moon.
I’m all over the map too! This is my 3rd blog!!!! Uggggg!!!
Thanks for stopping by, virtual hug!
I don’t understand the need to be marketable at the expense of being true to yourself and writing what you enjoy writing.
This was an enjoyable read! It makes me think about the post I’m working on about writing fanfiction, and the legitimacy of writing that is not meant for publication. I think so many people are of the mindset that if what you’re writing can’t get published or receive mass attention, it’s a waste of time. That makes me really sad, because writing is a form of self-expression, and is never a waste.
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Thank you. I think this is why self-publishing just took off. Many folks believe in their writing and got fed up with the publishing game and the rejections.
Plus, I think a lot of writing does end up resonating with people because it was written by someone who was staying true and honest to themselves. Ironic, but how it is.