Contentions: Writing for yourself vs. writing for the reader

A writer at Farnam Street makes the case:

Great writing requires you to position your idea in a way that will resonate with the reader. Average writers start with what they want to say without considering how it will land with the reader. Great writers understand the journey starts with what the reader desires.

To which paulpauper asks at Hacker News, “Isn’t this just being a hack or predictable?”

Webster’s 1913 defines the word, “hack,” as an adjective, as, “Hackneyed; hired; mercenary.” In particular, it’s often used to describe, “Hack writer, a hack; one who writes for hire,” with the example, “A vulgar hack writer.” (It’s also the title of a TV show I really liked starring Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder, Hacks.) 

Unlike the noun, hacker, the adjective, hack, is not used as a flattering term.

My professional background working with organizations as a marketing advisor, editor, or writer set a clear mandate to serve readers (and generate more business), which naturally meant focusing on their needs, their curiosities, and their wants. 

In the years since, I’ve written a book, I write at this blog every day, and my personal creative process tended to lean more into my own curiosities; I wanted to ask questions, research projects I wanted to explore, and discover the things I didn’t even know that I didn’t know yet. 

I’ve continued to answer this question for a decade, and I’ve got a better answer that I wish I knew at the beginning:

I no longer know if starting with what the reader desires makes for great writing, though hack writing definitely starts with what the writer expects or guesses the reader desires. Those are two different things.

It reminds me of chef David Chang starting the first Momofuku Noodle Bar (which could be operated by one person!), and not having the confidence to fully put forward what he intended to. He writes in Eat a Peach:

The concept of a noodle bar didn’t yet exist in the minds of most Americans, yet we were cooking as though diners were coming to our restaurant with expectations. We put dumplings on the menu because I thought people would be looking for dumplings. But that wasn’t true. They weren’t asking for dumplings and I didn’t want to make them, which meant that nobody was really satisfied.

In other words, Chang put dumplings on the menu because he thought people wanted them. It turns out he guessed wrong—they didn’t—and neither did he, so the dumplings didn’t make anyone happy.

This is true for many people’s notions of starting with the reader. For example, some people working in search engine optimization—with honest intentions!—would make the case that their field is totally reader-centric because they started with search queries or questions. Writers at Quora certainly could as well, since they were responding to questions that readers were asking.

None of that really resonated with me though; the tension came from the observation, or intuition, that this work lacked something. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it; it was difficult to articulate, beyond, “It just doesn’t feel right.” I can now confidently say, much of the work they put out didn’t engage me when I was the reader.

One idea to unify this difference is to ask the difficult question: 

Who is the reader? 

I remember reading Neil Strauss discuss his own process of writing for the reader on the Tim Ferriss podcast:

My reader is me, as a reader, probably. I can be reading a book and thinking, “Oh, my god, will this guy just get on with it?” If you’re reading a book and thinking, “You know what? This guy is not even living up to what he’s writing and saying that he’s doing. He’s a total hypocrite.” – Whatever I’m thinking when I’m reading. So, my reader is just me the way I would read a book critically.

Personal curiosity, intuition, and taste, in other words, is a starting point for your work. If you don’t find yourself enthused about a topic, or particularly expert at it, you’re not going to do a good job writing it; it’s just not possible. You won’t be able to find the energy to put into the work.

I want to highlight that this is a starting point; it’s definitely not a closing one. You refine your taste, and your ability to articulate that intuition, by talking to other people about it. You keep it in your mind, ready to discuss when the topic comes up—and you see how you can keep people’s interests with it, and what their responses are.

You can also practice writing it in smaller formats—not as a book yet, but as a blog post, or a tweet—and that can give you feedback, both in terms of external data, as well as internal intuitive responses.

For example, when I published this piece on quantity leading to quality, I experienced a sensation in my stomach that transcended the usual excitement of publishing. The data validated that; over 200,000 people have read the piece, which provided a good starting point for me to write Creative Doing.

If you work in communications or content marketing for organizations, there’s a similar implication: start with what you, your team, and your customers are reading, watching, and listening to. Don’t just put out blog posts; really make a point in your meetings to observe, to pick up on what people use as references or are enthusiastic about. Join sales calls when you can, or watch and listen to the recordings. 

When you write for yourself, and for other people, you’re no longer guessing who the reader is or making assumptions. You’re working your way through a process similar to an immersive form of research; you’re investigating, and applying, new insights into the process. You’re writing to think

You’re also making the case for sharing your own, genuine, curiosity; that introduces a new element, because enthusiasm can be contagious. As people follow your work, they buy into your role as a tastemaker; if you ran a restaurant, they’d want to eat what you want to eat, not what you think they want to eat. Similarly, people will start to want to read what you want to write, not what you think they want to read. They’ll want to listen to the music you want to play and record, not what you think they want to listen to.

It’s definitely a slower path that requires more development and deliberation, but in the long run, it’s the one that holds the greatest reward for you and for the people who read your work.

P.S., The inner judge of mine says, this could’ve been a 100 word blog post. I took the scenic route, because I like to read when other people take the scenic route too. I dislike the opinion that books could have been essays, not because it’s inaccurate, but because you never know which part of a book will resonate and which won’t. More on that another day!

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