Jul 25 2008

Don’t Write for Yourself: You are Your Own Worst Reader

Published by at 5:30 am under Commentary

Today, a commenter at Nathan Bransford’s site said…

While I’m striving to write a book that I hope will be some kind of bestseller, I never forget that I’m also striving to write a book that *I* would want to read if I saw it on the shelf.

That is badly misguided. Whether you want to buy your book is irrelevant. You are not the audience of your book. Publishers do not want to publish a book for you. Publishers need to sell thousands of copies and they want books with that sort of appeal.

Authors that write a book they want to read tend to lose sight of the audience. I think that leads to self-absorbed and completely ineffective titles like “The Legend of Edarotag” and “Cimmeria’s Song*”. It may contribute to in-jokes and references that no one can relate to. As a rule, I think it’s safe to say that no one finds your interests as interesting as you do.

In conclusion, your career will probably be more successful if you forget about what you want to read and focus on finding what you can (and would be proud to) sell.

*These are both fictional titles (try reversing the letters in Edarotag).  I hope that demonstrated how easily in-jokes can disgruntle mass audiences.

8 responses so far

8 Responses to “Don’t Write for Yourself: You are Your Own Worst Reader”

  1. daveon 25 Jul 2008 at 8:52 am

    this kind of tip is increasingly misguided itself i think, particularly in regards to what can be a global audience. i think there’s a difference between “writing a book i’d want to read” and “writing a book ONLY i can read.”

    part of the semi-glorious success of the internet has been in small-town aficionados discovering that they were not, in fact, unique in their fetishes, both literary and otherwise. the challenge obviously lies in making those interests both enthused with the understanding of a practitioner while also make the exploration of the topic pleasurable for the uninitiated.

    and also, asking yourself if you’d buy a book you’d written “if I saw it on the shelf” is one of the 101 questions asked by this website of novel writers, so it hardly seems fair to call that “badly misguided.”

  2. B. Macon 25 Jul 2008 at 10:12 am

    Thank you for your comment, Dave!

    I’m sorry, but I don’t quite see the question you’re referring to in our novelist’s questionnaire. Which number were you referring to? The closest one I found was “Does your title have curb appeal? If someone were browsing through the bookshelf and found it, would he want to start reading?” I find that question useful because it encourages authors to try to put themselves in the mindset of prospective buyers. In contrast, someone that is writing a book he wants to read may lack that perspective. Worse, he may not even care that he lacks that perspective.

    I agree with you that “there’s a difference between ‘writing a book I’d want to read’ and ‘writing a book ONLY I can read.'” The way I interpret the first phrase, it can mean either A) writing a book only the author can read, or B) writing something he’d be proud of. I encouraged writers to “focus on finding what [they] can (and would be proud to) sell.” I think that more precisely separates the productive sentiment (B) from a phrase that is, I think, unhelpfully ambiguous.

    –B.M.

  3. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 12 Jun 2009 at 10:59 pm

    My story was originally for me, but now I’ve done so much editing that the characters are unrecognisable. Isaac shares only his name, origin and powers with my first draft version. (Weak, whiny, pathetic, know-it-all with a desire to be perfect and make the world perfect. Sorry, Izzy, but I’m glad I killed you and brought you back as a better character)

    In a way, I’m still writing for myself. I have looked at some of my really old writing and found a lot of crap. I want to prove to myself that I’m able to write something good and not just unresearched fails about the nineteenth century. (I have salvaged some ideas and characters, though. I just modernised them and took out all the Sueish traits. *shudder* Oh, the Sues. They’re crawling all over my old works, like little demon vampire children. Die, Amelia! Burn in hell, Clive! I’m gonna kill you, Sarah! Haha)

  4. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 12 Jun 2009 at 11:00 pm

    Stephenie Meyer allegedly wrote Twilight for herself. She must have fallen victim to this.

  5. J.M.on 12 Jun 2009 at 11:29 pm

    I think the key here is not to write just for yourself, but for an audience which would include you. I’m not going to comment on Twilight, but then again I’m not a member of its target audience (girls who are, have been, or will be 16).
    As for my own work, I don’t necessarily feel like the stories I write are for myself, but they are my stories, if that makes any sense. I want to tell my story to the best of my ability and make it mine, but at the same time a story only works when you’re telling it to someone else.

  6. Marissaon 12 Jun 2009 at 11:47 pm

    If I had fun writing it, I’d have fun reading it, so I don’t really bother trying to write something I’d want to read, if that even makes sense? I don’t know, it’s late. Hahah!

  7. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 12 Jun 2009 at 11:54 pm

    I’m the same. I fit into my own target audience (teens 13-17) so I find it easier to write what the audience would want. I do write partially for myself, but I want to tell stories and share some imagination. In my mind, imagination is one of the most important aspects of the human self. To be without imagination is like being a robot, which is why I hate having writer’s block.

    I’m part of Twilight’s target audience, but I just do not like it. When I say so, I tend to get strange or threatening looks. People say that Harry Potter fans are just as bad and try to berate me over that, but I’m not a Harry Potter fan either. They’re good books, but I’ve only read the first two and I’m not what could be considered a fan. Maybe later; they’re on my reading list.

  8. Tomon 13 Jun 2009 at 3:19 am

    “I’m not going to comment on Twilight, but then again I’m not a member of its target audience (girls who are, have been, or will be 16).”

    I found this hilarious due to its disturbing accuracy.

    And yeah, I’m probably more guilty of this than I’d like to admit.

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