Writing for an Audience vs. Writing for Yourself
Here's why you should do both.
A discussion I’ve seen passed around in various writing communities is whether you should write for your audience or write for yourself. Does writing specifically for an audience lead to trend-hopping and inauthentic, less-engaging storytelling? Are you effectively putting blinders on if you write solely for yourself, or potentially creating an unmarketable story?
I would argue that both these things are true – and wrong.
Presenting these paths as mutually exclusive is misinformed, as is trying to vilify one method over the other. I’ve said this before, and I know plenty of others have as well, but there’s never going to be one “correct” way to write your book.
But before I explain how these seemingly separate methods can be used in tandem, let’s explain how they work individually.
Writing for an Audience
I think a lot of people probably assume this means catering to every whim of your potential audience, or focusing heavily on fanservice content, or just writing whatever is most marketable at the moment. But that’s… not entirely true.
Writing for an audience mostly just means knowing who your audience is. If you’re writing middle grade fiction, obviously you’re not going to include sex scenes or graphic violence – that’s just not appropriate for that age group. Or if you’re writing a sweet and fluffy YA contemporary romance, it would be out of place to include a dark and gritty subplot about political rebellion and anarchy. You know your audience picked up your book expecting a particular type of content, and so it’s not unrealistic to expect that you would be mindful of that as you write.
Marketability isn’t an absurd consideration, either, at least not if you’re hoping to publish your book. But there’s a difference between, “Hmm, maybe starting my book with a seven-page description of woodworking isn’t going to catch a publisher’s eye,” vs. “I really want to write a polyamorous vampire romance right now, but grimdark dystopias are more popular, so I’ll write that.” One is taking a story you’ve already lovingly written and tweaking it to sit more comfortably on a bookstore’s shelves, and the other is wholesale dismissing the story you want to write in favour of following trends.
Writing for Yourself
If you just want to write for yourself, why would you then try to take that book to market? You’re not interested in the ever-changing whims of publishers and readers – you just want to play around in your own imaginary worlds. A book written with only yourself in mind as the audience will inevitably be filled with wish fulfillment and indulgence, right?
Well, not exactly.
Writing for yourself means writing the book you want to read, or the book you needed at some point in your life, or just the book that leans into all your quirks and niches. That doesn’t mean the book is simply an indulgent fantasy or a mismatched collection of daydreams. At its core, writing for yourself should inform your plot, the characters you craft, the world you create, the tropes you use, etc. But the fact that you’re using and exploring things like tropes necessarily means that your work is also going to fit the interests and tastes of others, which means there is absolutely a potential audience out there for it. Your book wasn’t created in a vacuum, and neither were you – there’s going to be others who love what you love and thus love what you’ve written.
Doing Both Together
This ultimately comes down to one core principal: Tell the story you want to tell while being mindful of and respectful toward the audience that might one day read it. That means ensuring your story makes sense to people other than you, which might be especially important if your work dives into a lot of niche or technical interests. It means not wasting readers’ time with tons of repetitious content and filler, like characters discussing the same problems over and over, or multiple recaps of the same event stuffed into one book. Lastly – and this is an important one – it means not making grand promises to the reader about things to come without ever delivering on them. If your book has been building up to a fight between two dragons and you cop out at the last minutes, readers will – understandably – be very upset.
Another way to look at this is that writing for yourself is how you handle brainstorming, outlining, and early drafts, while writing for an audience holds more sway during the editing and polishing stages. So you’re not dismissing one in favour of the other; you’re using both to make your story as strong as it can possibly be. And who doesn’t want that?