When it comes to audience, there are as many opinions as there are people offering them. William Zinsser, journalist and teacher, says, “‘Who am I writing for?’ It’s a fundamental question and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience–every reader is a different person. Don’t try to guess what sort of thing editors want to publish or what you think the country is in a mood to read. Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it. Besides, they’re always looking for something new.”
John Steinbeck has a slightly different approach with, “Your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person–a real person you know, or an imagined person, and write to that one.”
I like Erica Jong’s response to the question of audience: “Writing is one of the few professions left where you take all the responsibility for what you do. It’s really dangerous and ultimately destroys you as a writer if you start thinking about responses to your work or what your audience needs.”
Look, the audience will appear if the work warrants it, but thinking about them before you’ve even figured out what kind of artist you are is only going to keep you from developing anything even close to a voice that’s yours. Speaks the bitter voice of experience.
For the first … I don’t even know how many years I was writing, I was writing to one particular audience: Stephen King’s audience. Because I wanted his career. It took a while but eventually I realized I’m not going to be Stephen King, he and I are two totally different writers. And once I realized that, it made writing so much easier, and it made finding my own voice so much easier too.
To me, the answer to the question of audience changes as you move through the stages of your career and expertise, as you become more comfortable with who you are as a creative person. In the beginning, you HAVE to write for yourself, otherwise you’ll never find a voice that belongs to YOU.
Once you find that voice, once you’re comfortable enough in that skin, it won’t hurt to find that one other person you can write to. But at the end of the day, the only person you HAVE to please is yourself.
I’ve run into this a time or two as well. You write something you love, but with an eye toward making that one other person happy too, and if they give it back and say “Meh, it could be better,” hear them out. They may have some good ideas, things you never thought of. Outside opinions are always helpful, but opinions are all they are. Take them in, digest and turn them over and, if you think they’ll make the work stronger, excellent. But if those opinions are going to lead to you compromising the story to please someone else … well, that’s something only you can decide.
Ultimately the question of audience is one you have to answer for yourself. All I can do is give you what I’ve learned from my experience with it over the years. For me, I have to like it first. And then, once I like it, I can take those bones and shape them into something other people will like too, while also maintaining the heart of it that I loved enough to bring to fruition in the world.
Or just remember Cyril Connolly’s words, “Better to write or yourself and have no public, than write for the public and have no self.”