The Writer’s Paradox

When crafting an important piece, it is likely you will become intertwined in the classic writer’s dilemma: who are you writing for? According to author William Zinsser, you should be writing for yourself. Although he is the self-proclaimed evangelist of brevity and simplicity, Zinsser emphasizes that the audience – or the idea of who your audience is – should not have an effect on your writing. In chapter 5 of his book On Writing Well, he describes this paradox. A good writer should be a master of the ground principles of writing and confident in their personal style. Here, the difference between technical craft and unique attitude is key.

Zinsser also says to not bat an eye at those who might not vibe with your sense of humor or style, because they are simply not worth writing for. In his mind, the right audience is the one that will keep reading – not the one you try to write for. He argues that in writing for yourself, you lose the audience you don’t want while attracting the audience that is truly valuable. While there is a massive appeal to not letting an audience dictate how you write, I believe that this distinction only holds true for certain kinds of writing. 

Getting an audience is hard. Sustaining an audience is hard. It demands a consistency of thought, of purpose, and of action over a long period of time.
– Bruce Springsteen

Writing as a whole unit can be sectioned into four main categories: expository, descriptive, persuasive, and narrative. Each of these genres has its own distinct purpose and requires a diverse set of skills in order to execute it at a high level. Zinsser’s view of “writing for yourself” can technically be applied to all four genres, but that does not mean it will guarantee success. In more artistic or narrative forms of writing like poetry, book-writing, and blogging, I definitely think that Zinsser’s view rings true. No one will want to read a piece that is trying too hard or is an amalgamation of things they have already consumed. These forms of writing are also quite personal. It makes sense for Zinsser to advise readers to put the blinders on because it is important for a person to write their truth. An audience is irrelevant here because the author is the one with specific stories, purposes, and goals in mind. They are not actively trying to bring people in, rather they are trying to get people to stay.

This mentality is the exact opposite for many other forms of writing that lean more towards the “reality” of things. Journalistic pieces, marketing/business pieces, and even simple social media posts all rely on knowing who your target audience is and what they like to consume. To make money, businesses need to know who they are selling to. This requires constant nuanced testing. After figuring out what works, many companies can use formulaic approaches to further enhance their copywriting efforts. Marketing is truly a science, and once you find a hook into your audience it is possible to keep up positive momentum and even create new approaches that will appeal to that group.

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