Write for Yourself, or the Reader?

I read a lot about writing. I've almost always got a craft book open in my Kindle library (right now, it's James Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Novel), and my inbox is clogged with newsletters from half a dozen writing blogs.

In books, blogs and forums, the one question I see more than any other is this:

"Should you write for yourself, or for the reader?"

In other words, should you just write whatever you feel like, and let the chips fall as they may? Or should you look at what readers enjoy, or what's selling, and try to write like that?

This is a great question, and one of the most important that any writer faces. Unfortunately, the common wisdom is very polarized. I believe in a more balanced approach.

In short, I think you should write what you want to write, but write it how the reader wants to read it. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)

The longer answer is that a writer should write what he knows, and that usually means what he wants. As far as the story/conceptual content of a piece, you kinda have to write for yourself, or its a chore and you hate it.

But you can't ignore the reader's hopes and expectations either. That's a path of least resistance issue. If you write only for yourself, to the exclusion of the reader, readers will simply take the path of least resistance and set your book down. Demanding to be read, but refusing to consider the reader's feelings makes you a dictator (one of the many reasons I despise lit-fic authors).

Thankfully, you can have it both ways. In reality, you have to have it both ways. If you write purely for yourself, you'll be an arrogant prick at best, and languish in obscurity at worst. If you write purely for the reader, you'll produce forgettable genre trash. If it's really well written, it might sell, but what writer aspires to make zero impact on their reader?

Writers want to be known. We want to be read, or we wouldn't write.

The thing is, no matter what you're like, there are people like you out there. No matter what you want to write, there are people who would enjoy reading it, if you could only get it in front of them. So you have to write what you want, figure out who also wants it, and write it in such a way--and in such places--that they can enjoy it.

As always, life is more complex than the binary questions humans love to ask about it.