By: Noelle Sterne
“I have an idea for a new book. It’s a novel about a beautiful yet sensitive author whose spirit is crushed by her domineering editor. Do you like it?” ― Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Writing, Writing, Writing, and Then…
You’ve drafted, redrafted, and re-redrafted your piece. You’ve studied the guidelines of all the publications. You’ve followed them exactly, rechecked your submission, and checked it again. But . . . the rejections keep pouring in. You moan, scream, swear, and fling around the house, ready to throw in the sponge and throw out your keyboard.
If you identify with this scenario, maybe your writing approach needs an adjustment. Take this little test. Do you:
- Too often feel blocked, self-conscious in your writing?
- Like you’ve lost your flow and spontaneity?
- Think only of impressing the Big Editor of the publication you want to get into?
- Concentrate on displaying your great wit and astounding insights?
If your response is “Yes” to any or all of these questions, you may be writing to and for the wrong person.
Enter the Editor
Yes, the editor accepts, approves, pays, and publishes. But the editor, after all, is a surrogate audience. The editor’s job is to be plugged into the publication’s audience, and the more she/he is sensitive to the readers, the greater the publication’s success.
So here’s my advice: Forget the editor!
Who Are You Writing For?
I learned this lesson with difficulty and several ego punctures. Finally, the Big Mag I’d been craving to get into for years accepted a piece and published it. Then, awesome marvel, the editor called and gave me another assignment for the following issue. We had a great conversation, way beyond writing, comparing favorite munchies and other important life issues. I assured him I could easily meet the tight deadline, privately sure I could whip out a brilliant piece.
But once I started, after the first zingy paragraph, everything stopped. Gagged flow, flat writing, paltry new ideas. My head ached in panic. Why was this piece so different from the first successful one?
I got up from my desk and went outside to the nearby park. Walking, I breathed deeply and let my eyes bathe in the forest greenery. Absorbing the trees, I heard the words: “Be the reader.”
How to Write for Your Reader
As I thought about this command, my eyes swept the low shrubs, and reader-centered questions came:
- Why am I reading this?
- What can I learn?
- How will it help me?
- What about it will entertain, uplift, or inspire me?
You too have probably asked such questions-consciously or not-when you pick up anything you want to read. Ask them more consciously when you next decide to read a work by another author. Your answers will become evident-whatever the genre. They’ll remind or teach you why your reader wants to read.
During my walk, as I repeated these questions, the answers for that grid-locked piece with came pouring through.
I stopped, dug into my pocket for a pad and pen (always carry them), jotted feverishly, and then almost ran back home to my desk. I reattacked the article, completed it on time, and sent it in. The editor returned it with only minor edits before publication.
So, when we approach our pieces as if we are the reader, we stop trying to dazzle the editor. We know who we are writing for: the reader.
Paradox: The Reader Is You
At the same time, the more we write honestly, delving into our own depths with courageous expression, the more we will reach readers. The truer we are to ourselves and our subjects-in nonfiction and fiction (as our characters)-the more readers connect with us.
When Elizabeth Gilbert was interviewed about her great success with Eat, Pray, Love, the interviewer observed Gilbert “instantly connected to millions of women who felt that a part of your story was their story too.” She replied, “It’s very joyful for me to see that the liberation I gave myself made them feel more free” (Karen Bouris, “The Stubborn Gladness of Elizabeth Gilbert,” Spirituality & Health, March-April 2013). Gilbert had to write, first, for herself. Other women identified and drew courage from her admissions and liberated actions.
I too felt joyful-and surprised and grateful-at readers’ comments on my book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (pardon the trumpet). One reader wrote, “As if speaking directly to me, the author began to guide me gently out of that stuckness.” Another admitted, “The very issues I’ve been grappling with are right there in this book. It was like a blueprint that all but had my name on it.”
Now, who was I writing about? You guessed it-me. Whose problems was I puzzling out? Mine. Whose solutions was I aiming for? My own. And yet, my words resounded with readers who found the help and meanings they needed.
Your Rewards from Becoming the Reader
Learning how readers are helped by our words is one of the many rewards of becoming the reader in our writing. I’ve also discovered other gifts that teach and guide us in perspectives and craft:
- You become less self-centered.
- You concentrate instead on the reader’s needs.
- In turn, the work’s focus becomes clearer.
- Your writing flows with greater direction and purpose.
- You become more honest in your writing.
- You confess, maybe paradoxically, that you’re writing for yourself, and you’re less afraid of that (ridiculous) accusation of “selfishness.”
- You connect with more readers.
With these lessons in mind, whenever I’m trying too hard to be smart, witty, cleverer than my writing colleagues, or writing to top a previous piece, I go out to the park and walk, breathe, and repeat: “Remember who you’re writing for.” Then I say, silently and sometimes aloud, “I’m writing for the reader. I’m writing for myself.”
And finally, I shout, not caring who hears, “Forget the editor!”
Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing
Following Noelle’s advice, when you’re ready to write for yourself, consider submitting it to us: