Friday, May 24, 2013

A Writer's Audience

So, who do you write for?  Yourself?  Your readers?  A combination? 

We all talk about this a lot. One side firmly states that you write for yourself. Of course, this has to be true, as you’re the one up in that sequestered (hopefully clean and well-lit, as Hemingway would suggest) place, toiling away. If you don’t like your people and story, odds are no one else will either. It’s funny, I see a lot of manuscripts where the villain is all villain, and all the evil gets pinned on his shoulders, which is not only unbelievable but belies that the writer hated him to the core. And that has the paradoxical effect of flattening out the character so that his effect is minimized. But that’s another discussion! The point being that the essence of writing, especially fiction, stems from your own inspiration and connection to your words. To your people. Your story. All of that has to be interesting enough so you keep stepping into that writing room. 
The other side says, “Know your audience,” a familiar refrain, and of course, this holds water.  Especially true when writing genre fiction of all sorts, as the readers invested in the different genres and categories and sub-categories read broadly in those specific lines. Those readers know the requirements, and are right ready to call foul for sometimes even the most minor transgressions. They expect perfection from the authors they follow, and if a book delivers, those readers will be loyal for pretty much life. Even forgiving said transgressions in later books (provided they’re not too egregious). 

But I ran across this quote recently that tweaked me, from Walter Lippmann: “It requires wisdom to understand wisdom: the music is nothing if the audience is deaf.” That got me to thinking about the dumbing down of our society, and how publishers have gone from targeting books to an eighth-grade reading level, to a sixth-grade one today. Gulp. The former statistic has always been disheartening but the latter is downright distressful. How do we write for such? 

We’re tempted to say screw it, I’ll write for myself and whatever audience is there, so be it. And that’s a noble position. One I take fairly often, before returning to reality. We don’t, in the end, want our stories and people to languish, unread. And yet, I confess that I’m more comfortable with that position in nonfiction (I had to rewrite Five Keys for Understanding Men five times, in order to make it accessible for the market, and many reviewers said it was still too highbrow). Fiction is a bit too close to the soul for that to sit well.

We all have to find our own personal balance, based on goals and dreams, on financial and family situations. I’m not sure that’s a fixed balance, but one in which the pendulum swings to and fro as occasions and our own hearts change with the ebb and flow of writing and life. Many authors use pseudonyms for different genres, which I like for its firm boundaries, and have thought at times to adopt. But I never actually do it. I like the idea of owning my work, no matter how well or not it does in the market.

In the end, no right or wrong answer exists to the question. There is no shame at all in writing to the market—that makes authors successful. And no fingers need be pointed at folks who stick to their guns and write what their hearts dictate, whether their stories sell well or not. The only answer is within each one of us, our own personal pacts with the universe. Once we make peace with that, creativity gets freed again to soar.

Award-winning author and editor Susan Mary Malone has five traditionally-published books to her credit (fiction and nonfiction) and many published short stories. A freelance editor, forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers. You can see more about her, and what authors say about working with her, at:


  1. Deborah Turner HarrisMay 24, 2013 at 4:06 AM

    For years I've been telling my novice writers, "Write the book you want to read that nobody's written yet." Funnily enough, however, it has never occurred to me to ask myself, "Who do you write for?" - until now.

    I certainly start with a story concept and cast of characters that I find interesting. However, once I'm fully engaged in the writing process, I completely lose sight of any audience that might be out there. It sounds pretentious to say so, but I seem to end up writing a novel for the sake of the characters who are in it.

    Am I a lone loon, or are there any other folk out there of a similar persuasion?

  2. Love your advice to new writers, Deborah! And I think your process shows how the best books come--following wonderful characters through the story.
    On the last point, well, we're all somewhat loons or we wouldn't be doing this :)

  3. Finding that balance between writing for ourselves and meeting the expectations of readers can be tricky. We do have to love the characters we are working with, otherwise the readers will not connect with them emotionally. However, there are readers who expect certain things from a particular genre book, and how much do we owe them? Certainly not so much that the writing is formulaic, but we do have to satisfy the reader unless we truly are writing just for ourselves. (smile)

  4. Since I was very young, I've had a very particular audience for my stories in mind. If I made this person cry or laugh or see things in a different way--I knew others would, too. This idea itself actually plays a major role in the novel I'm currently writing--so I found this discussion really interesting.

    The point you brought up about the dumbing down of the reader is disheartening. (Try to read Allen Bloom's book on the subject--written in 1987--and try not to cry yourself to sleep that night). I would rather have Ian McEwen's smaller audience than Stephenie Meyer's gargantuan one, but both are so unbelievably hard to attain that I don't even like to think about it. So, yeah, I return to my original intended audience which makes me happy enough.

  5. What you said about not liking the villain struck a cord. A writer's attitude toward his/her own characters really comes through. In a recent book I attempted to read, I could tell the author hated all of her characters. If she hated them, why should I love them enough to spend 400+ pages with them? It's something I try to think about when I write. One review I received said that they could tell I loved my characters. I definitely loved my "girls" in Mythikas Island.

  6. I'm in the 'screw it, I'll write for myself and whatever audience is there, so be it' camp. Good thing I like my stuff, 'cause so far it's me and 7 or 8 others.

  7. Debby wrote:
    "I seem to end up writing a novel for the sake of the characters who are in it. Am I a lone loon, or are there any other folk out there of a similar persuasion?"

    Debby I guess I am a Common Southeast Pennsylvania Loon, and one of your persuasion. Why I kept submitting for eight years: yes, I didn't want to let myself or my family down, but most importantly, I wanted to do right by this cast of characters I had come to love.

    As hard as it is to break in—or, in the case of self-pubbing, "break through" so that you can sell more than the expected 100 books—I think you do need to love the characters that much to persevere. That kind of love will see you through, whereas I'm not sure writing to the market is enough. It'll either work or it won't, and be discarded for the next idea that comes along.

  8. Though I'd love to write a book that appeals to the masses, writing well is too difficult and too time consuming to not love what you're writing.

    I can only hope that my books find the readers, no matter how few, who'll love my characters and stories too.

  9. Perhaps it's the editor in me, or perhaps it's a simple matter of self-respect, but I refuse to dumb down my writing. To attain my goal of bringing something of value to readers, whether many or few, I choose to respect them as individuals who can learn and grow; and I refuse to accept that they must be increasingly illiterate. To buy into that mentality is to acknowledge that sixth-grade reading level is as good as it gets. Surely, we can do better than that.

    Public schools, take note. If this is the best you offer, you are systematically destroying the future of our children by creating a generation of illiterates who can't think for themselves and are thus fair game for any dysfunctional or opportunistic leader who comes along with the goal of recruiting a mindless following. Have schools really changed this much in the last 60 years? If so, we're in huge trouble.

    Susan, this post contains several thought-provoking points; I've expounded on just one of them. Thank you for sharing something we all need to read.

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  11. You know, I don't find the "dumbing down" to be as distressful as some people do. To me, it's communicating in a simple and straightforward manner that everyone can understand. That's communication that goes beyond pretense, beyond self-importance, beyond ego. I think in an effort to impress with lofty intelligence, clear communication is often obscured. I can spot the dazzle-them-with-bullsh*t routine pretty fast, and so can many readers. All IMPO of course, and no offense intended. ;)

  12. I agree with Dani that straightforward communication is essential. This, in my opinion, isn't dumbing down. Writing a book in which adult characters speak on an elementary school level, however, is a different story. I didn't intend to imply that impressing readers with lofty intelligence should be any writer's goal. However, if we must always speak in the language of children, how can we ever hope to be viewed as mature writers? If a reader has to visit a dictionary once or twice during the reading of a book, is this bad? Often, context defines our words, so most readers will never need to leave their chairs to understand what's happening in a story.

    In recent years, our educational system has fallen short when compared with that of other countries. Yet, children can often live up to greater expectations when challenged to do so. How can we as writers challenge them?

    Education doesn't always need to come from financially strapped schools. We have a unique opportunity to help youngsters move beyond a sixth-grade reading level. Can some of us step up to the plate to promote greater literacy? Can we donate time to local libraries, after-school sessions, or reading programs such as those that teach English as a second language to help children and adults alike learn the joys of reading?

    As writers, we must surely endorse the treasures awaiting readers on the pages of books. Books can take them to places they might never have the opportunity to visit. Interesting and helpful information they might otherwise never learn lies between the covers of books. What can we do to share this with those beyond the audiences we usually target? Might we, with s little training, help those who are dyslexic to overcome this detriment to reading pleasure? Might we share, as some have, in classroom discussions of reading and writing to help youngsters appreciate the gift of language? Lowering standards does nothing to inspire excellence, so why must we accept that as inevitable to the detriment of our children's lives?

    Back to Susan's post...we all do need to find the balance that works for us. We do have dreams. We do have goals. If one of those goals is to keep the enjoyment books alive and well, do we then have some obligation to help others find value in reading.

  13. I agree with you, Linda. One of the reasons I love the Harry Potter books so much is for the hope they gave me that "dumbing down" really isn't necessary. If so many millions of readers could cope with the higher grade vocabulary Rowling used in HP, then surely the rest of us can find an audience even if we include the occasional three- or four-syllable word.

  14. Susan:
    One website lists 27 fiction genres and 45 nonfiction genres. As a writer do you write specifically to one of those genres with each book?
    As an editor do you tell your clients to rewrite their books to fit one specific genre?
    The books I read as I grew up did not seem to fit one specific genre. Now as I try to write for a specific audience, the biggest stumbling block is trying to stay within the boundaries of a genre. Any advice?

  15. So many wonderful comments! I apologize--went out of town for the holiday and just now seeing this. I just love all your points. This is such a line we all walk that we've all faced it before. And as everybody is saying--you just gotta find your own balance point.
    Anonymous: I don't write for a specific genre in fiction. But in non-fiction, I pretty much have to conform, at least somewhat Frustrating. I'm with Dani about the 'dazzle 'em with bullsh*t' scenario, but when you're forced to omit mulit-syllable words, well, it makes me a bit nuts. Linda is so right about our education system . . .
    As an editor, I DO counsel writers to fit the genres--if they want to traditionally publish. You pretty much have to. On the other hand, I also stress to write what you honestly love. My writers find that when doing so, they don't have as many problems in conforming, because they read that genre, and have internalized the specs, to a large degree. In my world, 'write what you love' trumps all. Of course, I don't have J.K.'s following either! LOL


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