March 29, 2021
Some time ago, there was a post in Twitter’s writing community that expressed a common idea: whom are you writing for?
This is the question, isn’t it? It is a question that I find troubling—and I doubt I’m alone among writers. For that reason, it is a question I keep coming back to.
Whom do you write for?
There are two sides to this coin: the practical and the existential. Actually, there are multiple sides, but my coin analogy would then fall apart, and our economy has been shaken enough these days, so let us stick with two.
This applies more to professional and technical writing than it does to creative writing. When writing an email to your boss, you will (consciously or not) be aware of to whom you are writing, and tailor your writing to be more formal or respectful. I say “you will” but I suppose this is not a guarantee. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, the art of the email has been slipping since the word netiquette peaked in 1998 (according to Google n-gram).
What does this formal writing look like? First, an absence of contractions, and jargon. More noticeably, when trying to be “formal” in our writing, the general “we” often throw in as many modifiers and qualifiers as we can, the textual hem and haw to make our stance more submissive.
A Practical Example
You have noticed a problem in your office, concerning growing hostility, which you wish to bring to your boss’s attention. After the general salutations, you express your concern in one of three ways:
- Dear Ms. C: I would like to bring to your attention a little issue I have been noticing around the office over the past few days.
- Dear Mr. L: Over the past few days, there has been an increasing environment of hostility in the office that I believe needs to be addressed.
- Dear Mrs V: It is imperative that we fix the growing hostility in our office now before matters spiral out of control.
What is the correct option? There is no one right answer here—the nature of your relationship with your boss will determine your actions to an extent. All three options avoid contractions, jargon, or otherwise informal language, but there are some noticeable differences.
Option 1 is the most distanced: using the present continuous “I have been noticing” as well as the qualifiers “I would like to bring to your attention” and “a little issue”. Taken together, these extraneous words are often used by writers to either soften their message or remove themselves from the message.
“I don’t want to get involved, I just wanted to maybe, potentially, without putting my foot in anything, let you know?”
Option 2 is more direct, with less modifiers, but it is passive. Passive voice (making the object of the sentence—problems—the subject) is often used in this context to come across as more respectful in our writing. Passive voice is more objective: we are reporting on our findings without judgement as a good scientist would. There is nothing wrong with passive voice in this context, but it is important to be aware when you are using it as an over-abundance of passivity can be harmful.
Option 3 is the most direct—perhaps too much so? The use of the first person plural “we” places you on the same level as your boss. There is a problem, and it will take both your efforts to fix it. The use of the word “imperative” could come across as strong and decisive, or as dictating orders. Same with the word “now” followed by the potential consequences: this could be seen as taking great initiative, or as an ultimatum.
This example is a microcosm of the finer details you must consider when writing in a professional setting. There are three grammatical concerns that anyone who engages in professional writing should be aware of:
- Active/Passive voice
- The 12 verb tenses and aspects
These are three prominent factors that are determined by your audience. In a professional setting, how well do you know the person to whom you are writing? This will determine how much you lean towards active or passive voice. What is your position in relation to your audience? If you are giving instructions—whether through a memo, a self-help book, or anything in between—you will want to be active to encourage the greatest action on your reader’s part.
What action do you hope your reader will take? If it is immediate or specific, then the present and past simple are the best tenses for the job; if you are attempting to encourage reflection, then the more ponderous present and past continuous should serve you well. And of course, diction, or your word choice, will inform how your reader perceives you. If you don’t want to come across as assertive, avoid the phrase “it is imperative”. Keep an eye out for the amount of modifiers you use, particularly words like “just” and “only”, which, in this context, exist in writing to distance ourselves from our words.
All right you novelists and short story writers, you poets and playwrights—let us get into it.
For whom do you write?
I could only speak for myself, but this question is an existential quagmire that traces a line back to my origins as a writer. The question warps itself into variations of
- Why did you start writing in the first place?
- Do you really think that anyone cares about what you have to say?
- Who the hell do you think you are?
And there goes any productivity, forced down the drain by self-doubt.
How do we overcome this anxiety-spiral? By coming to terms with the initial question.
There are some who begin a creative piece with a specific audience in mind. Typically those writing for a journal or anthology, or for a contest will have an idea of the built-in audience that will receive their work and should cater their writing to them. If writing for a horror-themed magazine, don’t offer up fanciful, sentimental tales of human endurance. If submitting a poem to an anthology celebrating diversity, don’t write a piece decrying the state of multiculturalism. I’m being obtuse to stress the point: when your writing is destined for a specific place, your audience should be a primary (indeed the prime) concern. Plan your work with your audience explicitly in mind and, inevitably, your piece will be a better fit for said destination.
But what if you are sitting down to write your first novel? A short story that you are not sure what you want to do with? A poem for the sake of a poem? How much of your mind should your potential audience occupy as you begin to write?
Some believe that you should always write for yourself. If you enjoy what you are writing, this will come through the page and the reader will resonate with it. Honestly, I do not buy this. I think that writing a work you intend to put out into the world, but writing it solely “for yourself”—that is, without any consideration for your audience—leads to a form of metaphorical shorthand that your audience will likely not pick up on.
It is a fair argument that you will care about what you are writing more than any audience. Thus, if you dive too deep inti your pleasures, expecting your reader to follow, you run the risk of leading them down a dark path which you can navigate blind for you have walked it a thousand times, but they cannot.
Go too far in the other direction however—spend each page thinking “will my reader like this? Will they understand my intention?” and you run the risk of paralysis.
Following initial planning or a first draft (depending on where you fall into the “plotter v. pantser spectrum”), take some time to imagine your reader. What are they looking for in your work? What is going to linger in their minds after they put your book down? There may not be one right answer to this question, and that is fine, but by thinking about the value you are trying to add into the world, you could prevent retreating too far into yourself.
Ask your character, “What are you offering the reader?” This shouldn’t be a primary concern for character creation, but if in the back of your mind, it can help guide you to create characters that will resonate with your reader.
But don’t let the question consume you. As soon as you find yourself unable to write due to the stress of your potential audience, it is time to put your imagined reader on the shelf, return to your draft, and repeat the cycle.
Remember that, in the wide world, there is a reader for all types. Sometimes you have to work harder to get your work to them, but there are avenues for those willing to work.
What prompted this musing, beyond being haunted by the refrain?
This blog, of which I have been too negligent, has made me wonder for whom am I writing? I won’t deny that I had hoped for a larger readership, but is that why I write these posts? Is there value in these ideas being put out there, regardless of what metrics the graphs show? Obviously, I hope so, but I am not certain.
Ultimately, I want these posts to be advice driven (though I admit my “person” has been creeping in more and more lately). Ultimately, I am writing for an audience to provide advice or prompt reflection on this or that aspect of writing. Thus, when I sit down to write, I have an imagined audience firmly in mind. And I find this more motivating than crippling.
And that is why I am grateful to those who read these posts, and so a heartfelt
Thank you for reading.