Writing for twenty-seven readers

January 26, 2010

Every once in a while I come across a piece of writing advice that really resonates with me. And when I reviewed Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed last week, I forgot to mention that she had one of these bits in her book.

In Gilbert’s prologue, she writes about her difficulties writing Committed, how she ditched her first attempt at a manuscript and started from scratch. She writes:

Ultimately I discovered that the only way I could write again at all was to vastly limit — at least in my own imagination — the number of people I was writing for. So I started completely over. And I did not write this version of Committed for millions of readers. Instead, I wrote it for exactly twenty-seven readers.

She goes on to name those twenty-seven readers, all female friends, relatives and neighbors. As I was reading those names, I realized that I use this technique, too — subconsciously. And I should start using it consciously.

Who do I write for? Not twenty-seven people. Sometimes I pretend I’m writing my book for just one person: a close friend named AJ. (Now that I’m writing this post, I recall Stephen King mentioning something similar in On Writing, how he writes his books with one person in mind, his wife.)

Why AJ? She knows how to tell a good story (like me, she has journalism in her blood). She’s got an attention span that does my writing good — I can imagine her getting super excited about the riveting parts of my book, but yawning and skimming over more boring sections (when I picture her getting bored, I cut). But the main reason I write for AJ is because I know she’ll never laugh at me. She wants to read about my feelings, secrets and embarrassing moments, and she’ll like the book more because of those details. Even when it’s hard for me to reveal personal thoughts to the millions of people who will read my book (hey, you never know), I feel comfortable sharing them with AJ. And so I write for her.

This strategy could work for any genre, but it’s particularly useful for memoir because it helps the writer be honest — utterly honest. The world isn’t going to read the book. Just your friends. No biggie. No pressure. Just be honest. And writing with an honest voice is so important in memoir.

Who do you write for?

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    20 Replies to “Writing for twenty-seven readers”

    • Andrea James says:

      ((hugs)) ((made my morning))

    • Dana Bate says:

      I’m writing a novel, and I mainly keep my mother, husband and a handful of friends in mind. However, at this stage, this is a relatively easy thing to do: I’m unpublished, so for all I know, those are the only people who will end up reading it! For someone like Elizabeth Gilbert, whose first memoir sold thousands of copies, the situation is quite different. I’m sure she felt all sorts of pressures on what her thousands of readers might expect and perhaps worried that her follow-up would fall short of their expectations. In that case, her strategy is even more important — and, should my book end up selling at all, one that I will definitely keep in mind! I think it helps your voice remain “true,” whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction.

    • Katie says:

      I love this idea! I’ll have to think about who my 27 (or so) readers would be.

    • Jennifer says:

      I LOVE this idea! I’ve never thought of it. I need to think about this. Who do I write for? I have two friends who help me edit. I value their criticism and their encouragement. My husband: he always has great suggestions for my work. My mom: she’ll read anything I write and tell me it’s amazing and she wonders where it all comes from. Hey, we all need an unconditional cheerleader, right?
      Thnaks for this post,

    • Heather Rae says:

      I love this advice. I remember reading about that in Stephen King’s book also, but the way you frame it makes me realize even more how important this is. This definitely helps me be more honest if I’m just writing for one person and not worrying about what every other potential reader might think about what I’m saying. I have a few people that I write for. Though I think I most always consider my sister-in-law my perfect reader.

    • Shelly W. says:

      Delurking here to tell you that this is some of the best advice on writing that I’ve read in a while. And it has helped me immensely. I am going to picture my best friend, Amy, while I write my memoir. Like you said, she won’t judge me.

      O.K., back to my quiet corner. . . .

    • Peggy says:

      When writing articles for Guideposts magazine, I always have a target audience in mind. It’s not a specific person, and it’s always different. For my article on kids flying the nest, my target audience was a 40-something mom who is contemplating her kids growing up. For my article on dog trainer Bill Berloni, my target audience was not only an animal lover, but also someone who was looking for validation in their job. Hopefully, I end up with a story where the reader can say “This is my story too. I feel the same way.”

    • Good post, Alexis. I write to an anonymous reader who likes fast-paced mystery/suspense/thriller novels. If I had to put a face on the reader, it would probably be mine. LOL

    • jessiecarty says:

      i’m glad you have found someone good you can think of reading your memoir. i think the one draw back to considering audience is that you may cut out some good stuff because you become worried about not wanting to upset someone. or maybe that is more of an issue with poetry 🙂

    • Ami says:

      Love this post, Alexis! You share some really great insights, and this is one of the best. I think sometimes my audience ideas are too broad, and that stifles my ability to write a focused essay. When I write for a specific group, a few people I know (or one person in particular), it helps to give my pieces roots, to guide my stories in a specific direction. I don’t do this consciously enough, so that’s something I’ll be keeping in mind as I write this year.

      • Alexis Grant says:

        Hey Ami — I was thinking that this post kind of overlaps with your latest on the paradox of memoir. Ironically, when we keep one or two people in mind, we usually provide more details than we would had we thought of a large audience. And as you pointed out, the more details one reveals, the more others can relate.

    • Greta Igl says:

      I tripped across your blog via the Guide to Literary Agents newsletter. Terrific post. I always strive for honesty in my writing; writing with a friend in mind is a great way to dive even deeper into that pool. Good luck with the memoir. Sounds like just the sort of book I’d enjoy.

    • Merrilee says:

      That’s a very interesting idea. I like it!

    • Kay says:

      Oh my goodness. I never thought, consciously anyhow, about who I write for. I suppose I should definitely put more thought into that. And with that in mind, I might actually attempt that novel that’s been lurking around in my mind for so long. If I wrote it as though I were telling the story to my best friend, I might actually be able to handle it! Such good advice.

    • aw. this is sweet. you two are awesome.

    • Dana Brown says:

      My single life memoir…When I imagine single women reading my words I’m fine. When I picture old boyfriends reading them, I get nervous!
      Knowing that kept me from being honest at first. After several edits, I’ve realized it is better to stay honest.

    • I’ve never thought about this. As someone whose readership is primarily composed of people he has met, this would definitely work well. Thanks!!!!

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