Finding a Balance: Writing For Yourself and Others

Audience plays a pivotal role in writing. After all, in order to qualify something as “good” or “bad” you need to have an audience. But writing for your audience can prove difficult. How do you attract and keep readers? Each one will have a unique experience because every reader is different. Although there are many technical skills that one can perfect, there is a huge part of it that depends on creativity. The question I want to tackle here is what role does the audience really play and how much do they really affect a writer’s style?

            In William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, he poses an interesting question: “Who am I writing for?” This has a complex answer. While writers should always be considerate of their audience, should they be aiming to please? Zinsser says no. He believes that writers should write for themselves, rather than the audience. He recognizes the challenge of keeping the reader’s attention while also not worrying about their opinion, “I’m talking about two different issues. One is craft, the other is attitude. The first is a question of mastering a precise skill. The second is a question of how you use that skill to express your personality” (Zinsser, 25). The reader will lose interest if a writer throws form and good English out the window. Technical skills that should be up to par when writing should help form a good backbone for a piece. The “attitude” that Zinsser discusses is how a writer uses their voice. This, he claims, is how the writer should be writing for themselves, not others. They shouldn’t push issues or force humor to gain attention from readers or publishers, but instead, write about how they truly feel. Genuine writing will succeed with audiences because the passion will come across the page. I think Zinsser makes a great point when he says “Don’t try and guess what sort of things editors want to publish or what you think the country is in a mood to read. Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it” (Zinsser, 24). No one sets out knowing how they want to be entertained. That’s the job of writers, actors, or any other type of performer. They figure out how to entertain and the audience comes to them.

            The writer needs to be cautious when speaking to the reader, whether it be the Average Joe or a superior at work. Sometimes they can overwhelm the audience in a phenomenon called the “curse of knowledge”. In his book, Sense of Style, Steven Pinker explains the “curse of knowledge” as “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know” (Pinker, 59). While writing about a subject someone may be an expert in, it is easy to slip into complex terms that sound like gibberish to everyone else. While this isn’t always intentional, it takes an effort to simplify explanations to help readers understand things fully.            

So what role does the audience play? It’s not cut and dry, as there are many aspects of considering an audience. While a writer should be concerned about technical elements and how well audiences will understand the topic at hand, their writing should be in their own voice, and they should talk freely about what they are passionate about. I think that Zinsser makes a great point. When I open a book or an article, I’m looking to be informed but also entertained. A huge element of writing is to provide a piece of entertainment. I think that entertainment comes naturally to writers and they should trust their gut when it comes to how they write.

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