Have you ever written something that you genuinely didn’t enjoy? Think back to when that was and try to dissect why you struggled with it. Was it the way you wrote, the mood, the subject, the intended audience?
Ironically enough, this post you’re reading now is one that I grappled with. While what I wrote initially answered all the necessary questions, I didn’t get the concept out how I wanted to. As I thought deeply about this, I realized that I didn’t think about how I’d like to tell this subject’s story and instead went at it how I thought my audience would understand it. The result was a reasonably well-written piece that made its points; however, it was bland. The irony is that this post’s content is about writing for yourself and the audience; so, let’s dive in together to better understand why this can be troubling.
“You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment, you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for,” William Zinsser explains in his book, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. While Zinsser talks about writing for yourself, he isn’t implying that the audience is not important. The audience is essential because it builds a relationship between the writer and the reader. So, why is he declaring to think about yourself before the audience? Well, if we look closer to what Zinsser’s paradox is, we’ll understand that the purpose of this isn’t to disregard the readers but to look inward to achieve the ideal audience.
According to Zinsser’s paradox, writing well is required to achieve readers, but the author’s voice needs to be authentic to attain readers.
Technical writing is the first of the paradox: to achieve readers. Writing well can become a skill over time, but if the final blog, article, book, etc., doesn’t flow, has grammar errors, or doesn’t keep to the point, it will not gain an audience. Writing doesn’t come naturally, as Zinsser puts it. To write well enough to gain viewers requires cleaning the mess several times before a piece is published or posted. Only when writing has been ruthlessly dissected to its most understandable form can style and voice enter the room.
Following the second point of the paradox, the author must genuinely write for themselves to have the ideal audience. Just like how self-confidence and willpower resides in the mind, the practice of writing for yourself will bring more satisfaction, and in turn, will award you with a meaningful audience. “The more of yourself you put into your writing, the more human and engaging your work will be.” Mark Bernstein, in “10 Tips on Writing The Living Web”.
Writing authentic, technical craft for an audience is doable, as long as it’s completely understood. However, this dichotomy is meant for nonfiction, as said in the title of Zinsser’s book. So, do these contrasting goals work for all other kinds of writings? Think about it this way: while a teen fiction novel has the voice that makes it so, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the audience will only be teenagers. J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, managed to gain audience members of all ranges because of the content and voice she used that was authentic to herself and her interests. So yes, while there are differences in writing approaches to nonfiction versus fiction, the paradox process should remain the same for both writing types.
Let’s go back to the problem I had when writing this post. The issue wasn’t so much the technical aspect of the paradox as it was the voice that I used to approach the subject. My writing wasn’t engaging enough, meaning readers would likely not get to this point in my post. The paradox is quite simple, but we may need to remind ourselves of it with each piece of writing to ensure we’re meeting the needs of both ourselves and the audience. To write technically is to write honestly for yourself, while the attitude used to attain readers will help you reach a loyal audience.