Writing is a skill—a skill that is just as practical as it is artistic. It can also be a powerful medium for a person’s expression just as much as it can be one for influencing the thoughts of an audience. But when we write, we usually ask ourselves: why are we writing? And more specifically, who exactly are we writing for? Well, some write to express their own thoughts and views, while others may write to communicate with and seek validation from a specific audience.
But which one is better? In Chapter 5 of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, he states that ultimately, writers should be writing for themselves.
This seems to contradict some of his previous chapters where he emphasizes how important writing carefully is so that the reader does not get lost. However, he clarifies this “contradiction” by separating the two issues into two distinct categories: craft and attitude. While it is crucial to proofread and revise your craft of writing, you should not dwell on whether the reader will understand or agree with your attitude (in other words, forms of expression or beliefs), because “every reader is a different person.”
Yet, his assertion to “write for yourself” may also contradict what many seem to tell aspiring writers—that they must first understand their audience and then style their writing accordingly.
I do understand Zinsser’s point of view, specifically when it comes to being more confident in yourself and caring less about how others may judge your work. That being said, my perspective about his statement is that it depends.
I feel that while being as expressive and authentic as possible usually makes the writer sound more credible and respectable, the platform that you are writing on should also matter. In other words, if you intend to write for a certain kind of audience or to influence in a certain manner, then the way you write would have a great impact. Therefore, in some settings, it is necessary to be conscious about how you style your writing and tweak appropriately.
This is definitely true in writing for marketing as well as in technical writing. In an article for UMGC, if you wish for your argument to be effective, then you must address your audience by rearranging content, adding or subtracting information, and tweaking the tone accordingly. And I’m not talking about only craft here (Zinsser would agree to keep changing your craft); I am also talking about attitude.
For example, what you write to higher-ups in your company about a proposal would probably be very different from what you would write to a general audience who knows less about the subject of your proposal. You may include more details and use a more casual tone for the general audience versus using a much more professional tone while omitting the already-known details to your company. If there was some universal, one-size-fits-all template issued to both your bosses and the public, then the public may see the writing as strange and inauthentic, while your bosses may see it as unprofessional and may cost you the outcome that you were trying to seek.
On the other hand, there is a perspective that very much supports Zinsser’s take on writing for yourself when it comes to attitude. Melissa Donovan writes in her blog post for Writing Forward that writing for yourself should mean “being true to your core values and your unique artistic vision,” not necessarily acting on your first instincts and avoiding criticism and self-improvement.
To give a specific example, Donovan shares that when a market becomes popular, many writers try to hop onto that bandwagon and end up sacrificing their individuality and unique voices in attempt to cater to that audience. To me, in this situation, the audience is being exploited while the writers are being untrue to themselves as well as their audience, so no one wins. Had the writers written more from their heart and gut, then this issue of oversaturation would probably be alleviated.
All in all, I do believe there is a lot of merit to “writing for yourself;” it’s true that writers should not give two damns about what some random guy in Iowa thinks about their writing style (nothing against Iowa, though!). That being said, while I think that the writer generally shouldn’t curb their expression and creativity, how much a person should modify their writing style is situational and adjusting it should perhaps be highly considered for technical writing and marketing.
Zinsser states that you should “never say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation.” However, just as you would modify your words in order to converse comfortably with different audiences, you should be conscious about how you write and adjust depending on the audience that you are trying to communicate with. And you don’t need to compromise your values in the process.