June 8, 2019

Write for Yourself or…the Reader?

For whom do we write? It sounds like an easy question that writers address after determining a topic. However, is it an easy question? William Zinsser, the author of On Writing Well, likened this question to a paradox. It is an internal battle waged by an author’s need for clarity and his or her own pleasure.

Zinsser wrote in On Writing Well: “It’s a fundamental question, and it has a fundamental answer: You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience—every reader is a different person.”

Zinsser is clear that writers need to write for themselves. His self-described paradox occurs because earlier he described the reader as, “someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds—a person assailed by many forces competing for attention.” He goes on to say if readers become lost, it is the fault of sloppy writing.

To Zinsser, these are two distinct issues. One is mastering a skill; the other is attitude and self-expression. Writing is a solitary task, and dwelling on a hypothetical audience will only serve as a distraction. We need to give the act of writing our full attention if we’re to be effective.

If my former public relations professor read that sentence, she would berate me. We’re supposed to consider the audience first. She took a stance similar to Harvard Professor Steven Pinker. In an article, he equates bad writing to writers being unable to imagine an audience that doesn’t know what they know. Pinker calls it “the curse of knowledge.”

On the surface, it appears that Pinker and Zinsser have different answers to the question for whom we should write. Pinker explains the challenge facing many writers: “The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader.” He suggests finding someone to read your work is the best remedy for the curse of knowledge.

For Zinsser, good writing mechanics address Pinker’s concerns. He attests that clear writing makes sense to someone encountering a subject for the first time. Zinsser believes, “…the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”

Both Pinker and Zinsser encourage rereading with an eye for meaning. If you reread a sentence and have no idea what you meant, it is not a sign of neglecting your audience. It is a sign of poor writing. Revision is the mark of a good writer. We should revise our writing for clarity and with the assumption that our audience doesn’t know anything about our subject.

My former professor was right. Before you begin writing, consider the audience. When developing a topic, writers should ask themselves, who is my audience? Push the audience out of your mind when you start writing. Your focus needs to be on writing clearly. The audience should be your primary focus again when you revise. Write for yourself. Revise for your audience.


Pinker, S. (2014, September 25). The source of bad writing. Dow Jones Retrieved from https://stevenpinker.com/files/pinker/files/the_source_of_bad_writing_-_wsj_0.pdf

Zinsser, W. (2006). On writing well (7th ed.). New York, NY: Harper Perennial.