Writing is a form of communication, but for many amateur writers, its most important purpose is for communicating with themselves. That sounds strange, but seeing your own words on paper helps you understand who you are and what you’re thinking, even in the moment as you’re writing them down. Don’t underestimate the value of writing something that nobody else may ever see.
Ther’s nothing wrong with being your own sole audience. Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka both wanted their works burned after their death. Writing can be therapeutic. Even if you’re a serious writer, you may not want a lot of people to see your early work. Though if you want to learn, show it to someone. That’s the only way you can know for sure how it’s coming across, or if it’s coming across at all.
So I’m not speaking to those who want to write for themselves alone. Maybe you’re the author of what Seth Godin calls a “cat blog” – you write about you and your cat, and nobody but you and your cat would be interested in reading it. And your cat can’t read.
But most writers want to move beyond our cat blog. If you didn’t want anybody to ever read what you wrote, you’d write in a locked diary, not a blog. Real communication is between people, and most writing is intended to be read by someone else. Just as the process of writing helps you understand yourself, the process of writing for others helps you understand them.
By imagining your audience listening to what you’re writing, you become more sensitive to how (and whether) you’re communicating. (By actually standing before an audience and watching their reactions, you become even more sensitive – that’s one reason why I joined Toastmasters International). One of the benefits of writing is that it helps you get in touch with what’s real. By writing for a definite audience and a definite purpose, you become more aware of whether what you’re saying makes sense. By re-reading your work as if you were someone else, you can decide whether something would make more sense if you rephrased it – or whether rephrasing it, unfortunately, wouldn’t really help. Keeping your reader in mind as you write helps to tune your inner “stink detector” that alerts you when your writing stinks.
The storytellers of ages past, perhaps addressing fellow tribesmen around a fire after a hunt, knew when they were communicating. They knew when their audience was following the storyline, and when they were getting confused. They knew when the tale was keeping their audience’s attention and when the tribesmen were plain bored.
As a writer today, you probably don’t have a campfire handy, and probably no fellow tribesmen available to give you feedback for your writing. You’ll have to make do the best you can. If you can’t find potential audience members to read your writing for you, you’ll have to imagine that you do. But imagine them well. Imagine them accurately. Or else build a fire and hope that some listeners gather around it soon.
Writing for yourself is fine, sometimes. But knowing that somebody is going to read it, and knowing exactly who they might be, can help you overcome vagueness, foolishness, and even writer’s block. An audience can give you your reason to write.