In online publishing there is an oft repeated mantra about writing for your readers. While it is true that you should write for your readers rather than search engines, there is a gaping hole in the advice. When you face the blank page to tell your story, the last thing you need is an audience, even when the audience is only in your head.
Even the most experienced writer often faces the nasty inner critic, who shows up to heckle and deter you from your writing process. If you allow readers into the room you can guarantee that at least one of them will be a critic. In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft , author Stephen King advises that you tell the story to yourself first. It is advice that helped me get my first novel onto paper. I had to shut the door and lock out the readers, and the critics in order to first tell the story.
Writing is one of the few tasks in which focusing on the end result can hinder rather than help. You cannot sit down to write a New York Times bestseller or a viral blog post. Initially it is you and the story, whatever that story may be. When you have told the story then you allow the readers to help you refine and polish it.
Writing without an audience can yield surprising results. You may discover stories or storytelling elements that never would have blossomed without creative freedom.
Whether or not you are a writer, we all have to write – reports, presentations, correspondence – and we have all faced the critic that makes us anxious about the end result. How would you apply King’s advice in your writing? Would it ease the task of writing if you did it without thought about the end result?
Davina, what great observations and really got me thinking deeper about how I write and what really hinders me. I think you’re on to something about strategy playing a role in the creative process. I wonder if our response is triggered by what part of the brain we’re using to “create.”
Dwayne, Amen to that! I would go so far to say that strength is the muscle that is built up by challenge, without being tested you will not exercise those muscles.
Cheryl, thank you for that! I love that I got to be a part of one of those “nuggets” just when you need it. 🙂 I have been similarly blessed so often.
Andrew, I completely agree with you! The first pass is an intimacy between you and your inner writer. Once it’s on paper, the readers help you to craft it into a polished (hopefully) piece. I must confess though that I have been known to throw caution to the wind and go with the creative only version. 🙂
Patricia, I’m learning so much from all of you and really appreciate being able to explore my own writing habits. I write every day for business and it requires me to aim for a very specific style, tone, voice, mood but those voices rarely bother me. I suppose I’ve disciplined myself to just work because deadlines could care less about my muse. In my own writing, I never attempt a result but just go with the mood and style as it comes. I’ve never aimed for an “effect” or outcome, not really, but interesting that I have not. Hmmm, something else to fill my cluttered brain. 🙂
Joanna, thank you! While reading your comment it unlocked an “aha” for me. We all have a natural style and comfort zone and I never realized that it varies with the medium, genre and audience. I struggle with email newsletters too, which is why my lists never hear from me and probably why I don’t put more effort into growing them! Yet, I write other things seen by far more eyes effortlessly and am not even bothered by the voices in my head. I suppose it’s not just readers but what they mean to us that can hinder us when we try to write.
Joanna Paterson says
Thanks for this Karen! I’ve been trying to think about what I do… I think I write as if I’m writing for just one person. When I’m writing I definitely have a feeling or thought or image I want to convey, and I do have something or someone outside of me in mind (or in my heart) when I’m doing that. Maybe that is to do with the kind of writing I do, which isn’t fiction.
It’s odd that I find writing online so intimate in that way – I find it easy to imagine it 1:1. I know some people are daunted by the thought of all the eyes watching them.
Whereas when I try to write an e-mail newsletter I get totally frozen – I think I start imagining all the recipients (not that there are that many!) and get panicked trying to anticipate all their reactions – esp in email format, which seems (to me) more intrusive than a blog.
Wow this is great and I found it on a day when my inner critic has been keeping me from writing at all. I am not a perfectionist – I just wanted this particular blog post to be elegant and dynamic and stunning writing….and wanting those superlative just stopped me cold…
This afternoon, I decided to write it as a letter to a specific person….it came out just fine and good enough.
But my critic still wants it the best and elegant and and….oh I need to go do something else and write a story in my head to entertain myself 🙂
Andrew Heaton says
Initially at least, it is crucial to allow for thoughts to flow freely without restriction in writing.
As we first put pen to paper, we must allow ourselves to go with the flow. Only then will the creative ideas start to come out and the words start to naturally appear on the paper.
But once we have a rough draft, audience related considerations become critical. As part of a thorough drafting process, it is important to have a long, hard think about whether features of the work such as tone, length and word choice are appropriate for who we are trying to reach.
I say forget about readers until the creative ideas are out. Then think about them a lot as the work goes through a well-disciplined drafting process.
Cheryl Smith says
I’ve had this tab open for days now, intending to read it.
Today is the day. You have know idea how timely this is.
Dwayne Fullard says
Once you go through struggles and choose not to surrender, that is definitely strength
Davina K. Brewer says
Karen, Came across this while searching this topic. Mileage will always vary per creative style. Sometimes it will help to have the audience in mind, sometimes it hurts. It’ll also depend on the strategy of the content: blog post to showcase expertise and get clients or a novel to inspire, enthrall or scare. Thanks for helping put this in perspective.
Karen Swim says
Hi Bradley, ROFL! I highly recommend sending them for coffee and hey let them have doughnuts too! One trick that worked for me was physically closing the door and bidding them adieu. When I was done with the initial draft I then put on my Editor’s hat. I let go of the creation and took a critical eye as I polished and refined. It may help to write the proposal as though you were telling a trusted friend why it should be published, then you can go back, fine tune it and hand it over to a third party. I know some fabulous editors and can point you to good solid book proposal writing help. Ping me via email if you need help.
Bradley J. Moore says
I don’t read much writing advice, so it is good to hear this. I am in the process of putting a book proposal together and it is driving me nuts, trying to pull together all these bits and pieces of content from the last 3 years. And when I look back to how it all started, it is exactly as you say. I was just writing for myself, no audience. Now I have them all standing around in my head, watching every move. I must send them out for coffee or something.
Karen Swim says
Rick, you hit the nail on the head each person does have to find their technique but for all of us the key is to get to that place where it is you and the creative process. Whether you are writing a novel, song, painting or even taking photographs, when you get to that core where it’s about the moment and creating and not what others will think, well that is where the magic happens.
Rick Hamrick says
Karen, I am a firm believer in the immediacy of the writing (or creating of any kind) process.
It seems to me that I am able to write best if I have put aside the other issues of the day and settled into a full presence at the keyboard or paper.
Liz Gilbert’s wonderful TED talk http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html
includes her own description, one of showing up and inviting the muse into the process. The only part we control consciously is the “showing up” piece of it. But we do have full charge of that part!
The combination of consciously calming myself and coming fully present, and the recognition that I am inviting the genii, not demanding anything of it, works well for me.
The bottom line is, every creative person is left to their own devices in how to get to the creative place inside themselves. Through one means or another, each of us chooses to be there, or not to be. I think advice such as Stephen King’s and Liz Gilbert’s is instructive, and may facilitate development of one’s own technique in finding the way there.