Writing for myself

Image: William Iven

Learning to stop giving a damn about what people think

There are very few books I re-read. Even when I want to read a book again, as soon as I start, I quickly find myself bored. One book this is not the case with is On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

I only discovered this a few years ago, but it’s quickly become a book I try to re-read every year or so. It is the best book I’ve read on, you guessed it, writing well.

The chapter I read today is titled ‘The Audience’ and it tackles the question: ‘Who am I writing for?’ And his answer is as simple as it is bold: ‘You are writing for yourself.’

In his own words:

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. If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don’t want them anyway.

Later, after quoting a section of writing by H.L. Mencken, Zinsser said:

The secret of his popularity – aside from his pyrotechnical use of the American language – was that he was writing for himself and didn’t give a damn what the reader might think.

This stood out to me because I know I can be a cautious writer. I feel very aware of the people who might read what I write and, though they are probably imaginary, I fear the people who might be quick to pass judgment if I started to be bolder in expressing what I think.

The result of this caution is that my writing can sometimes be bland. It’s not that I want to become some careless ogre in sharing my opinions – not at all – it’s that I want to be more fearless; to express more and not be as restrained as I know I can sometimes be.

This ties in with the risk taking I wrote about yesterday. It’s risky to truly put yourself out there, say what you think, and then fully own that. But I think part of finding my voice as a writer is connected to me learning to write first and foremost for myself – everyone else be damned.

Whether this will win me more readers or lose the handful I have, I don’t know; I do know that I want to take up Zinsser’s advice and see where that leads.

Winning isn’t everything

Learning to risk