Writers of literary works say don’t go chasing an audience. Don’t picture the reader in your mind. Just focus on the story and serve the story. Basically, the exact opposite of how copywriters work.
The best copywriters are obsessed with reaching members of a pre-determined audience and moving them to act. For a copywriter, words on the page are not abstractions, they’re not hazy thoughts draped over a red velvet chair, words are the vehicle, the high-powered engine with the means to reach the desired audience and the agreed-upon end.
Not Always the Best Advice: Tell Your Story, Your Way
To highlight the “tell your story, your way” argument, I could pick out any one of a hundred pieces of writing advice. This is what screenwriter, John Milius says:
To write for someone else is the biggest mistake that any writer makes. You should be your biggest competitor, your biggest critic, your biggest fan, because you don’t know what anybody else thinks. How arrogant it is to assume that you know the market, that you know what’s popular today—only Steven Spielberg knows what’s popular today. Only Steven Spielberg will ever know what’s popular. So leave it to him. He’s the only one in the history of man who has ever figured that out.
When I consider his point of view—one shared by countless other writers—part of me nods my head in agreement. Another part of me wants to scream.
The biggest mistake a writer makes is leaving untold stories withering on the vine. The biggest mistake is not writing, not believing, not developing a routine, and not improving. Writing for other people is not a mistake at all. Writing for other people is also not the same thing as compromising your values or dumbing down your work. That sometimes happens, but it’s not a pre-ordained outcome.
A writer of literary works can care about the reader and maintain their integrity. The reader is not the enemy of your best work. In fact, just the opposite. It’s readers who spend time with your work and gain something from it. To me, it seems neglectful to not consider the reader.
Cozy Up and Open Up
John Milius also suggests that it’s best for a writer to be his or her own biggest fan. I disagree. Writing is lonely work as it is, and what helps is to hear directly from a reader who knows and supports you. A few kind words from this person can help spur you on, and help you to remember to believe in yourself and the work you’re doing.
Publishing is a business and a writer has to know something about it, how it works, and who is who. The lone writer in a room is where the manufacturing of books begins, but it doesn’t end there. Getting a book into a reader’s hands requires the help of several more people. Professional people who know how to help writers make better books.
If you write experimental fiction, then cozy up to the editors, agents, publishers, and readers in that world. By immersing in a community as a reader before you step up as a writer, you instinctively know what readers want, because it’s also what you want.
Writing is about artistic self-expression.
Writing is about connecting with readers.
Both of these things are true. What I don’t like about the lack of market awareness in literary writers is the solipsistic pose. For a story to work, it needs to reach a reader, and when it does the reader ought to be changed by it. Writing when there’s a reader on the other end is an alchemical exchange. That’s exciting to consider and to consider it fully, it means keeping readers in mind.