Why Do Writers Write? To Bring Form To Their Thoughts, Or To Connect With An Audience?

by | Jun 12, 2011

I’ve been tossing around the idea that my writing, editing and publishing “isn’t about me, it’s about you,” for some time now, and I have to admit it’s a tricky concept to wrap my head around.

The academic view is that writers, editors and publishers are people with something to say. But the definition is a lot looser when you ask people in marketing and media to weigh in on the ancient art of storytelling. Marketing and media people like to see storytellers as community guides or content shamans.

Programming instructor and game developer, Kathy Sierra, guest writing on Gaping Void, describes the need bloggers have to cater to their audience:

You do not want to be the guy that must ask constantly, “how can I get more comments on my blog? how can I get more followers and fans?” The real pixie dust is when you ask yourself, “how can I help my users get more comments on THEIR blog?”. You want to be the guy who asks, “How can I help my users get more followers and fans?” And that is why I have always been such a fan of Hugh and Gary V and Tim Ferris, for example.

So it’s all about empowering the reader. That’s not hard to understand, unless you think about it for a minute…

Forget social media. Do great writers seek to empower their readers? Is that what Melville was doing with Moby Dick? Is that what Hemingway was doing with The Old Man And The Sea? Yes, the readers of these classics walked away from the book a better person for having read it–that’s central to the value exchange between writer and reader. But we’re talking about authorial intent. Was the intent to make their readers more popular, more well spoken, more knowledgeable? I have a hard time believing that. I think it’s much more likely that Melville, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Vonnegut and all the rest intended to tell a timeless tale.

I get that it is up to the writer to provide the canvas, the brushes and the paint so you, dear reader, can paint a picture. Where the logic falls apart for me is realizing that not that many of my readers, or yours, have their own blog or want to toot their own horn. They’re readers–people who like to consider, not reblog, the information presented. In other words, digital production and distribution of content has changed the game, but the fundamentals of storytelling remain.

Bottom line, there’s a difference between writers using story to connect with an audience and a marketer using story to connect with customers. I’m still working out just exactly what the differences are, but intent is a big one. Marketers intend to sell, and are judged by their abilities to sell, not by mastery of dialogue, suspense or plot. I know we all have to sell to survive, but writers first need something to sell and that something is the product of long and lonely hours–the very opposite of social.