MFA Nugget: Writing to the Reader, and More

MONTPELIER, VERMONT — “Who is your audience?” Ah, the age-old question. Vermont College of Fine Arts instructor Larry Sutin said in his lecture here at our MFA in Writing residency that he hears that question asked all the time, adding with his usual dry wit, “enough times that it must be a very important question.” But Sutin said he has never been able to answer it himself.

VCFA instructor Larry Sutin, who was my second semester advisor, and is my workshop leader this residency for the second time. Am I lucky or what?

VCFA instructor Larry Sutin, who was my second semester advisor, and is my workshop leader this residency for the second time. Am I lucky or what?

To him, imagining an audience for his work while writing is problematic. “I am hoping to be admired by people in my own head, which distracts me from my true mission,” which is to write well, he said. “I’d love readers to leave hot croissants and coffee on my doorstep every morning,” said Sutin, a multi-published author in both fiction and CNF. But he doesn’t write to be liked, he writes to be read. So when he writes, he writes to a solitary reader. Himself.

Writing is communication, Sutin said, and he wants to make sure his writing is clear to his reader. That reader is demanding, constantly questioning Sutin’s choices as a writer. If Sutin feels he has satisfied that reader, he hopes it means other readers will be satisfied as well.

I should interject at this point that Sutin is not describing writing as some sort of vanity enterprise, where you entertain yourself with your winning ways and assume everyone else will embrace your quirks. Far from it. He went on an extended discourse about how we cannot assume our readers know what we know. Thus, our reader–us–must ask the writer–us again–all of the tough questions we would expect of any reader.

As I listened to the latest stunning lecture from Sutin–please enjoy last winter’s defense of excessive detail–I realized that in the curriculum of my course on blogging as creative writing, I instruct would-be bloggers to identify their audience. It is essential, I tell my students, to know who you are writing to, and to tailor your writing to that audience.

But I now realize that I don’t really do that myself, not narrowly anyway. I have won awards given to writing blogs, so I try to include posts (like this one) on the craft of writing. The conceit of my blog is the challenges and rewards of an art-committed life, so I write about what that means to me. But, in reality, I write about whatever I am curious about at the time. That formula shouldn’t work. Yet when I asked readers recently in what respects I should narrow the focus of my blog, the answer was consistent–keep up the variety.

I don’t think I will radically change my course curriculum. There are literally billions of people on the Internet; you can’t blog to all of them, just as you can’t write creatively for all of them. But perhaps if you blog to a solitary reader rather than an audience–a demanding reader, one who expects the best of you, whatever your topic–the resulting prose will resonate with more readers, and soon enough you’ll have that audience.

There are so many more gems from Sutin’s lecture that I simply can’t fit in this post, but let me add that he said the best way to make sure you grow as a writer and as a reader is to read. Examine what other writers are doing. See how their techniques work for you. Bring your reader’s eye to other writers’ works, then to your own. Sutin didn’t go so far as to say books and essays on craft are of no use; instead, he seemed to suggest you can create your own craft lessons simply by reading more. Message received.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

21 Responses to “MFA Nugget: Writing to the Reader, and More”

  1. Patrick, I love the organic thought process of this post. Sometimes our best ideas are the fresh ones we have the courage to put into words. The pace of a short-term residency likely renders itself to such a process.

    I enjoy the idea of writing to myself (perhaps from the character’s point of view in the case of fiction), using myself as the critic. When I write, I often feel I’m transcribing; the emotion falls flat because there isn’t someone I feel I’m personally investing in. I don’t know if others feel this way, but I’m intrigued by the idea of investing my words in myself in order pry the emotion out of my head and onto the page.

    Alternatively, we can write to someone close to us, family or friends, similar to how oral storytellers pass their stories from generation to generation.

    • Hi Corey,

      What an interesting comment. I like the idea of writing to someone I know. I’m intrigued as well by your reference to transcription. I feel sometimes when writing that I am transcribing, but I feel that is because I have already written it in my head, perhaps while showering or even while sleeping. So in that sense it isn’t flat for me, because it gained life before I put it down. But I will say that life usually enters my prose during revision.

  2. I’ve always struggled with the ‘who’s your audience?’ question. Usually I have a vague idea in the back of my head but putting that idea into concise words doesn’t work well. I was relieved to find stating a genre basically stated an audience when I was working on a proposal for a book.

    But an audience for a blog? I’ve found those who follow me are not who I would have suspected, so this post is encouraging. Thanks for admitting you don’t have a distinct audience in you head when you write. I’ve not heard someone admit this before. Thanks again.

    • Well, one thing about this blog is I’m never afraid to admit when I don’t know something! It’s useful to me to know that you find you attract bloggers you would not have anticipated reading you.

      Interesting you mention the book proposal. Larry mentioned in his lecture that when writing a book proposal–particularly for nonfiction–he’s been forced to say who the audience was. Years ago before he began writing novels, he wrote a biography of the writer Phillip K. Dick, and he said he put in his book proposal, “This book will be read by fans of Phillip K. Dick.” That’s probably an accurate statement, but he said he really had no idea who would write the book, or who a Dick fan would be. But as someone familiar with the publishing industry, I understand why agents and editors want to know the audience, at least your best guess.

      I suppose you can write it to yourself, then tell your agent you envision fill-in-the-blank as an audience; no reason those need to be conflated.

  3. How about: “You never know to whom you are speaking.” That maxim stares at me from the wall beside my desk. The assumption being that we cannot know what mood the reader is in, what’s happening for them, what they need in the moment. I hear a lot about this “audience” business, and I suppose it all comes down to whatever little slogan helps us to feel connected to our own writing.

  4. Thank you for this. I hate being asked, “Who’s your audience?” and have to swallow back some barb. Anyone who will read it? At the same time, in my comp classes, I teach the importance of knowing your audience as a determination of tone, example, message, etc., especially in something like a persuasive argument, a magazine profile, a report to your supervisor. Worrying too much about audience — and I do not mean by this that one shouldn’t write to be read — can stifle the artistic impulse in fiction and creative nonfiction. Who’s your audience? seems one of those questions better asked in revision (and marketing) than in the writing process.

    • Love this: “Anyone who will read it?” You hit it, Lindsey–our audience is whoever reads the damned thing!

      I’m glad you brought in your comp class experience, however, because there are many contexts in which asking the question is important, and I know Larry would agree with that. You reminded me of my days in journalism; when I wrote an article that would go over the AP wire I had to picture a typical newspaper reader, someone moderately informed and educated but not necessarily aware of my subject matter. But when I wrote for a trade publication I could assume the reader had a basic understanding of the subject matter and the key players involved. One of my trade articles would have been incomprehensible for the general reader, and my general reader story would have been frustratingly slow for the trade reader.

      And yes, I can see that it is in revision where you can think about it. When Larry says his “reader” asks him to make sure he’s explaining what needs to be explained, I picture that happening in revision.

  5. I feel I’m writing to friends who understand me… who they are I do not know!!! In terms of a blog that seems to mean all age groups, all sexes and all tastes! Weird…

  6. Hmmm, lots to ponder here. My initial reaction is that knowing one’s audience is a very business-y thing. The business gurus are forever telling us we need to know our audience. And I’m forever ignoring them. My blog focuses on writing, creativity and spirituality, but I don’t have a grand plan for it, far from it. Like you, Patrick, I write about what catches my fancy in the moment. As for my fiction, I do know who I’d like to think will read it–lovers of women’s fiction, like me.

    • I wish wish wish I could ignore all that e-business baloney… is it baloney? I don’t know! That’s what makes it so annoying. I’m hedging my bets and wasting a lot of time doing it. O for the days of typing out manuscripts and mailing them off in big brown envelopes. If you haven’t seen Matt Dillon playing Charles Bukowski in “Factotum”, do yourself a favour. Every time he dropped an envelope in the big blue mailbox, I felt a pang of nostalgia. I’m suddenly hit with the urge to take my pen and paper to a cafe and write. See ya later.

      • I don’t know if its baloney or not P.J. Alas, probably not. But, like you, I try and try to follow their advice and then my head feels like it’s going to explode and I give up. I do fondly remember those days of SASEs and hopefully dropping things in the mailbox….

        • Ah, mailers. Yes, I know that world well.

          That reminds me, however, of knowing your publisher. One thing that people do wrong all the time is submit to the wrong agent, editor or publisher. It’s so easy to know what a publication is looking for. It’s the publisher’s problem to figure out what their “audience” is, but those of us submitting can take a few minutes to figure out if they’ll like what we’re submitting. So less ambiguity there!

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