Who do you write for?

In today’s New York Times, author Michael Cunningham (The Hours), writes about the writer as translator and about the interactive relationship between the writer, the words written, and the reader. Good writing has rhythm–in the syntax, in the sentences, paragraphs and in the overall pacing of the book. When translating a book from one language to another, a translator must not only try to faithfully translate the meaning of the words, but to capture that rhythm. But, the act of translation goes deeper than that. The very act of writing means that the writer must capture the ideas in his/her head and translate them into words and sentences that both have the rhythm readers want and expect, the rhythm that makes reading a pleasure, but also translate the ideas into meaningful sentences the reader can “get.”

To do this well, Cunningham advises, the writer must not just write for him/herself, but must write for the reader. He says:

This brings us to the question of the relationship between writers and their readers, where another act of translation occurs.

I teach writing, and one of the first questions I ask my students every semester is, who are you writing for? The answer, 9 times out of 10, is that they write for themselves. I tell them that I understand — that I go home every night, make an elaborate cake and eat it all by myself. By which I mean that cakes, and books, are meant to be presented to others. And further, that books (unlike cakes) are deep, elaborate interactions between writers and readers, albeit separated by time and space.

I remind them, as well, that no one wants to read their stories. There are a lot of other stories out there, and by now, in the 21st century, there’s been such an accumulation of literature that few of us will live long enough to read all the great stories and novels, never mind the pretty good ones. Not to mention the fact that we, as readers, are busy.

Writing for yourself can be done in a journal or a diary. It can be brilliant and wonderful, deep and insightful, poetic and rhythmic. But it may not necessarily be something anyone else wants to read. So writers who want to sell their work, who want other readers to read, enjoy, benefit from, and learn something new from their work, must write for someone besides themselves. They must write for the reader.

So, the question is: Who do you write for?

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