Do you write for yourself or for readers?
Purely in terms of writing, there’s nothing wrong with either approach. When considering publishing the piece of writing you’ve been working on, there’s a big difference. Two things have prompted me to think about this question recently. Firstly writing thirty draft poems during April. Secondly a long comment made on one of my reviews.
To comply with NaPoWriMo’s target of 30 draft poems in 30 days, the focus has been solely on getting a draft written free of concerns about whether the result, after editing, would be publishable or not. The task now is a sifting through of these drafts and deciding which ones do offer a reader something and which are more personal and not worth trying to get published.
In the comment on my review, the writer explained what she was trying to achieve with her poems and wrote about what she was doing and why she’d chosen the approach she’d taken. What puzzled me was that I stopped reading her comment part-way through and had to go back and read it again to try and understand why I found it difficult to read.
It wasn’t the writing, the style or the vocabulary she used: it was the focus.
Writers talking about their own writing often do sound pretentious or precious. All artists do, simply because the finished piece has to stand on its own merit. To an audience it doesn’t matter if you dashed off a poem in ten minutes or spent months agonising about the comma in line three. What matters to them is whether the poem’s any good. Talking about how you wrote your poem is irrelevant and doesn’t act as a guide to whether it’s any good. The method might be interesting to other writer or to someone who wants to learn to write, but to a reader it’s meaningless. Some writers will happily talk about their methods, but most know that such a conversation isn’t going to add anything to the finished poem so they find it awkward.
This was why I had to read the comment on my review again. I’d switched off because it was all about the writer, what she’d tried to achieve and how she’d tried to achieve it. Not once did she mention the reader or give any indication that a reader might be involved in her work. I’d stopped reading because I’d felt excluded.
Once a piece of work is published, readers are definitely involved. Readers are individuals with their own emotional baggage, their own ideas and their own responses to what they are reading. If your poem mentions a swan, some will see a swan on a lake, some will see images from the ballet Swan Lake, some might think of Leda’s story, some might think of Proust and at least one will remember the time they were attacked and chased because they got too close to a nest. Whatever it was your swan was to represent, it needs you to communicate that so your reader is guided towards your intentions because if you don’t, the person remembering being attacked is not thinking about a swan’s grace and about to think your poem’s failed. It takes a writer’s skill to guide and communicate to a reader.
When I look through my NaPoWriMo drafts, I won’t just be looking for poems that are technically competent or that carry an important message, but for poems that can reach out and draw a reader in. They’ll be the ones I’ll be working on to bring up to a publishable standard. I know before I look that there are three that are only written for me. They will be edited, but they won’t be published. I’m the sole reader; they won’t appeal to a wider audience so I won’t seek to get them a wider audience.
That’s the difference. There’s nothing wrong with writing for yourself, but if you aren’t writing for readers, there’s little point in trying to publish that work. When seeking to get work published and reviewed, you need to ask who you’re writing for and whether your writing involves readers.
Most writers start by writing for themselves whether that’s the book they wanted to read or because a poem won’t leave them alone. But when the editing process begins, that’s when most writers start looking at markets and readers and begin looking at what they’ve written with a readership in mind.
By Emma Lee