You must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one.
When I came upon these words in Strunk and White’s classic writing handbook, Elements of Style, I felt pleased as punch. For years I’ve tried to convince writing students to surround themselves with a safe, protective bubble as they draft projects and begin revising. We all know how concern for our audience can loom over our shoulders, pestering us with questions like “What will your mother think?” and “Who will give a rat’s ass about that?” and judging our language or ideas as inadequate. As soon as we allow that dreaded entity, “the reader,” into our writing room, we begin censoring and performing. We deny our brilliant but quirky inner voice the freedom to emerge.
“A careful first draft is a failed first draft,” Patricia Hampl writes. What happens if you give yourself permission in a first draft to be messy, heretical, revolutionary, stupid, and otherwise embarrassing? Your inclination may be to approach your second draft like Stephen King does: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” And while I agree in principle, I’ve found that even the initial stages of revision benefit from a general disregard of audience. How else can we ask the probing questions that will churn up more risky material? How else will we feel safe enough to identify that pulsing heartbeat? Often our real motivations for writing emerge after our material is on the page, and we need the freedom to be honest with ourselves without concern for our readers’ pleasure.
As every writer knows, it takes real will-power to set the future reader aside and “play to an audience of one.” Whether at the beginning of a project or well into revision, this practice is about peeling away layers of deception to arrive at a core reality—one that comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comforted, as Mark Twain is reported to have said. Our work needs us to be fully present, not distracted by what others will think. This is what gives the process of writing the quality of serious spiritual listening, and what invites us into our better selves.
The corollary to this intense privacy is equally valuable–for writing to flourish we must at some point welcome the audience. If a writer only considers the self the primary audience, the work becomes solipsistic and sloppy. Our own minds, however bright, are only so big; our own lives, however expansive, are inevitably limited. When we write solely for ourselves, as we do in a private journal, we human beings have a propensity to navel-gaze and obsess. Unedited journals almost never get published for this reason; there’s simply too much shlock for most readers.
If we never consider an audience as we write, our work’s growth remains stunted. The discipline of considering the reader is absolutely necessary to the development of creative work. All art is essentially dialogue—between the artist and the viewer, between the artist and all artists who have come before, and between the artist and society. The artist’s awareness of this conversation is what launches a work from the private realm into the public. In literature, it’s this awareness that helps a writer identify the universal elements in the particulars of his or her narrative. By setting our work in the context of history, social movements, religious thought, psychological explorations, and other external forces, we link the smallness of our memories (or imagined world) to that web of commonality that connects us as humans. We remove ourselves from isolation and participate in community.
I believe the best time to welcome the audience into our writing process is after the first or second draft, after we’ve searched for the heart of our work and risked exposing some truth. Gradually, as we move through the drafts, we can begin to ask questions that might open our story to external readers: Have I introduced my characters, my setting, my questions thoroughly? Why might an anonymous reader be interested in this work? How might I capture his or her attention and raise the stakes? How might I make my experience (or my character’s experience) available to the reader, so he or she is a participant rather than an observer? What in my story touches the human experience, that cord of connection we all share?
Every spiritual journey worth its salt brings the journeyer back into community, where the fruits of solitude can provide nourishment beyond the bounds of one individual life. Likewise with creative practice; what’s born in privacy gains texture and merit by moving into the public realm. The craft of writing well is really a rigorous discipline through which we open our internal world to another, or to the Other. This, I believe, is essentially what revision is about—seeing our material again and again, with eyes other than our own or with sight broadened by the wider world. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew