Pleasing Ourselves or Pleasing the Reader?

How do writers decide upon a story? Should we pay attention to what’s popular? Should we try to keep up with the trends? Or should we focus on what we want and not worry about what’s selling? It’s the age-old question, “Do we write to primarily please ourselves? Or do we write to please the reader?”

Here are some of the most common arguments for pleasing OURSELVES (as writers):

• Shouldn’t we as artists have a higher set of principles that guide us than market trends?

• If we strive to follow trends, what’s popular may change by the time our book is ready for publication.

• We have to stay true to what’s in our hearts because that’s the essence of who we are. If we try to write something we’re “not,” we risk betraying ourselves and writing drivel.

• If we can’t write what we truly and absolutely love, then what’s the point of writing at all?

Here are some of the most common arguments for pleasing the READER:

• Publishers need to invest in books they know will sell. They run a business and have to break even at the very least.

• Writers should trust publishing house professionals who see the sales figures on a daily basis and have a better idea of what readers love and buy.

• If a writer doesn’t care about readers, then why seek publication at all? Why not write simply for the pure pleasure of it and nothing more?

I’m getting ready to begin plotting my third contracted novel.

And to be honest, I’ve been struggling through this very issue. Can I write the book that I truly feel passionate about? Or do I need to focus on writing what readers will enjoy the most?

My Bethany House editor has given me some basic guidelines for the setting and era of Book 3. So, over the past few months, I’ve done some initial research, organized basic plots, tossed around some character ideas and sent in a couple synopses. But I haven’t felt particularly passionate about the ideas.

I’d love to be able to write about whatever I want, no matter the setting, time period, mood, characters, or plot. But, I also want to write something that people will enjoy reading, especially now that I’m getting comments like, “Can’t wait for your next book.” I’d hate to write a story that completely pleases me, but fails to satisfy my growing readership.

So is there a way to mesh the two dichotomies? Can we write for ourselves and still please the reader?

Here are just a few ways to do BOTH, to stay true to ourselves and please our readers:

• Understand the readers of our genre better. Make sure we know what they like best and how our book can fit within those expectations. And yet we can look at how we might be able to offer them something slightly new and different at the same time.

• Stay within the parameters of the market, but look for fresh, unique ideas that can push the boundaries just a bit. As author, Mike Duran recently said in an excellent post If You Write It, Will They Come? “Popular books uniquely capture or build upon market trends . . . an author needs both artistic vision and market savvy.”

• Take what we’re passionate about and look for ways to shape that into a story that may not exactly fit the mold, but is still appealing to readers.

If we’re seeking publication (particularly traditional publication), we have to remind ourselves that ultimately we’re seeking readers. We can’t ignore those readers, or we risk losing them. But we can’t ignore our needs either, or we risk losing passionate writing.

The mark of a great writer is one who can learn to balance the two needs. They're the types of writers who stay fresh and unique and write what they love, but are able to make sure their readers will love what they write too.

So, what’s your opinion? Should writers seek to please themselves or the reader? Or, like me, do you think there’s a way to do both?


  1. I definitely think there is a way to do both. For example, what I'm experiencing now does exactly that.

    I wrote my first novel for myself. Then I had it critiqued by a professional lit consultancy. They basically pushed my story into a commercial chick lit type of thing. Not my style of writing, but the basic story I wanted was still there. So I did it.

    But now that I've got a contract with a more literary inclined publisher, I'm revising it to sound more literary. But you see, the thing is, without the consultancy's advice, my plot wouldn't be so snappy. Which brings me to my point.

    Now I have a story line which is snappy and concise and will hopefully make readers want to keep turning the pages, but it will now also have that part of me which wants to tell stories poetically. It will now be a blend of both.

    So yes, I agree with you. You can definitely have both. You just need to find where that line of balance falls.

  2. First, I enjoyed this post immensely, seeing as how these same concerns have been on my mind for a while. Especially in light of the ridicule authors often receive from readers who wanted a different ending, or disagreed with something within the story. (Twilight comes to mind.) I have often questioned whether or not to seek publication for one story I have based on that potential ridicule, but I decided that to give up my ideas means the story would die. I'd like to think that hhoever likes it, likes it. Whoever doesn't won't recommend it to someone else. Period.

    The responsibility to readers lies in telling a good story and being consistent within the story. That's the beauty of the written word. So many people offering up so many different stories.

    I'm always confused when they say not to forget the reader. What does that mean? There are books I don't pick up because the topic doesn't interest me. Does that mean the author failed? I don't think so. Be true to your writing, or there is no story. Write to your genre though so that some poor middle grader won't get slapped with vulgarity or something inappropriate. Those are the only guidelines I would suggest.

    Thanks again and good luck!!!!

  3. Thanks for the excellent post. I struggled with this issue this year. Finding a way to balance my voice with what readers want to read is the key.

    Good luck with the next book. I know your characters will start talking to you soon and then the words will fly onto the pages.

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, this morning, ladies! Carrie, I agree that we really need to know the ins and outs of our genres and audience. But even when we know the general parameters, I don't think it's always easy to stay within them AND stay true to what we really love to write! At least it's not easy for me! :-)

  5. I suspect the only way to please the reader is to please yourself first.

    It's what a scientist would call "a necessary, but not sufficient, condition" to please yourself first. Only when this standard is met can the reader be truly pleased.

    You cannot control the market or what's popular. You can control your writing craft, and the passion and intensity you bring to your work.

  6. Jody, this is such a well-considered post.

    Monotreme, absolutely! I think we *must* please ourselves first, even if we keep an eye on what is and isn't possible in our genres. I think the best strategy is to allow yourself freedom in the first draft. If you think some characters should use occasional profanity or be offensive in order to sound real, write it that way! You can always make those minor changes later (as I had to.) :-) Without the trangressive and surprising nature of our writing--if we feel too boxed in on that first draft--we will lose the relish that produces good work.

    I've had an interesting experience over the last few weeks as I revise my second contracted novel. There have been days when I did NOT want to work on it because I wasn't as excited about revising old material as about first drafting. The limitations of my earlier voice from four years ago, when I wrote that novel, were getting me down. But now I've broken through by just writing and re-assembling very rapidly. I can envision a time when I will truly love this novel, even though I don't quite love it yet. Jody, you will do it too! Once you start writing, give yourself that freedom to transgress and break out of the box. Let your characters rebel against the requirements of the initial plan, and use their rebellion to fuel your own joy. Think "take that, synopsis!" Then you can tone them down later.

  7. You only get to write your first novel once. That has been a quote I have shared with other authors and friends who have posed this question to me often. I don't have deadlines or readership yet.

    I have kept a journal during this time of unresponsibility so that one day when I have deadlines and readership I will remember. I will remember the joy of the story flowing and the characters revealing themselver. I have kept it so that when I have parameters to meet I will know when that special spark has ignited and to fuel it to the end.

  8. Honestly, Jody? You don't get to pick your era and setting? Or are the guidelines really general? It's not likely that I will ever be a genre writer, but I imagine that publishers always place parameters on future contracted novels. But how strict are these??

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  10. Jody, thanks for this post. This is something I will be facing soon as well. My position is that you always have to write something that you love. If you as the writer are not passionate about your story, why would anyone else feel that way? Yet with that said, you have to keep the readers in mind as well. It's our job to find something that pleases all parties--though that is far easier said than done.

  11. I'm struggling with this myself right now. For years I wrote only for myself, without even telling anyone I was writing, and certainly without showing anyone what I was writing. Now I'm pursuing publication and showing my work to others. I've had to make some changes and follow the "rules" to make my manuscript more publishable. Now my writing is much stronger. However, I never want to forget that my passion for writing should be greater than my desire to be published, or else publication will never happen for me anyway. I hope I'm striking a good balance between the two.

  12. Rosslyn, You always have such wise advice! Thank you for sharing it! I agree. In first draft writing, we should allow ourselves the freedom to let the story and writing take us where it leads. However, after having to do extensive rewrites on my second book, I'm hoping with the 3rd book to be able to find a way to write within the parameters a little better, so that I can save myself some of the work and pain of rewriting so much!

  13. And thanks everyone for your comments today! I'm really enjoying the wisdom you're all sharing!

    And Jill, as far as the guidelines set by my publisher. With all of the books they publish, they do have to direct their authors so that they don't have 10 authors writing about the same setting and eras. So I present my ideas and then they give me direction with them. I'm trusting their judgment and so far, they've been right on, especially after having The Preacher's Bride make it to the CBA Best Seller list this week!

  14. I can write an entire novel about this very topic!!!! My WIP that I'm wrapping up right now is one that would please readers, me, not so much. My next WIP which I've begun outlining is going to please me. And you know what? I'm coming at it with an intense passion which I think will resonate in my writing. I think in the end you must walk a fine line.

  15. Jody, this is a difficult question to answer but I believe both are possible. I like your response to Jill. Writing for publication is a partnership between writer, publisher and reader... a collaboration of sorts.

    You are a God-inspired writer and I suspect once you are immersed in writing Book #3 and get to know your characters intimately, your passion for the story will ignite and the result will meet (even surpass) expectations.

  16. Yes, I saw you were on the bestseller list. Congratulations!

  17. Congratulations on being on the bestseller list!

  18. For me I have to write the story I love and then adapt it to suit (if necessary) With my plot I would like to think I am writing what the reader wants to hear, but I struggle to give up what I want in a character. For example, 90% of my protags are animals, even in an MG novel. It is easy to change plot, but not so easy to change from a kangaroo to a boy.

    I'm about half way through your book, loving it!

  19. Thank you, Maeve! Making the list was super exciting news for me this week!

    And kangaroobee--I'm so glad you're enjoying my book! I always like hearing that! :-)

  20. I'm like you, I think there's a way to do both.

    My brain isn't turned on yet this Sat. am so I'm just going to go with that for now. ;)

    And Congratulations!!!

    ~ Wendy

  21. Interesting thoughts. I started out thinking about only myself. When I looked around at what was on the shelves, I had a rethink.

    Now I hope I have a balance of the two. Time will tell. :)

  22. I think we need to do both. There is no point in writing something you aren't in love with. The readers will be able to tell and it won't have done any good but left you disappointed with yourself. However, if you write a book full of inside jokes that you think are hilarious, but no one else gets it, what's the point? I suppose if you don't care about being published it's fine, but I do feel that you have to walk that very thin line between the two.

  23. Hi Jody -

    For me, the issue isn't pleasing myself or the reader. It's staying true to the vision God gave me. That said, there are ways to tweak things, making it appealing to the reader.

    If my genre isn't popular now, perhaps the timing for the book is in the future.

    Susan :)

  24. It IS a balance of the two. Maybe it's best to write what we need to write, the story that is knocking on our hearts, then revise it for others to truly connect with us and our characters. You'll do great. Look at you go/grow!!

  25. It IS a balance of the two. Maybe it's best to write what we need to write, the story that is knocking on our hearts, then revise it for others to truly connect with us and our characters. You'll do great. Look at you go/grow!!

  26. Hi! I'm a new follower, I think you're blog is amazing and I just got a Versatile Blogger Award... which means I pass it along to other great bloggers : ) you can pick up the graphic over at my site where I've named you as one of my nominations!

  27. I think there's definitely room for both!


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