The Rewards of Writing for the Reader

Who do you write for?

The reader, right?

I used to think I did, but I was wrong.

I went through five stages during the first five years I was writing. I’m going to be brutally honest and tell you what they are in the hope that you can learn from my experience.

Before moving on, let me clarify something. None of the stages are wrong. I learned something from each of them. The danger I see is remaining in one of the first four stages too long.

Stage 1: Writing for myself.

I wrote five historical romances in my first two years of writing. The first one I wrote for myself—the story of my heart. Those 250,000 words gushed out. I’m talking spring runoff bouncing over the rapids.

Benefits: The process was exhilarating. I had a blast. I completed a story.

Potential Pitfalls: I wrote what I wanted with no clue as to whether or not the story would be marketable. I learned at my very first pitch sessions two years later it wasn’t when the agent and editor both got “you’ve got to be kidding” looks on their faces when I told them my idea. That manuscript is buried in the recesses of my hard drive.

Stage 2: Writing for my contest judges.

After completing the first two manuscripts, I joined Romance Writers of America® and discovered writing contests. I saw them as a way to get feedback on my writing, so I entered some. (OK, there are those who would say that 36 is more than some, but you get the point.) Being an obedient oldest child, I quickly learned what contest judges were looking for, and I did my best to produce stories with those qualities.

Benefits: I learned heaps from my contest judges. Their generosity, kindness, and honesty helped me immensely. And I experienced the thrill of my first finals.

Potential Pitfalls:  We writers can focus so much attention on polishing the opening of a story that the rest of it doesn’t get the same attention and, therefore, doesn’t live up to the beginning. We can drive ourselves nuts trying to follow all the “rules.” In addition, we can become addicted to contests and the high a final brings.

Stage 3: Writing for my characters.

I’d completed five stories when I learned that not a single one of them was marketable. I rewrote one of them, but I made a mistake. I let my characters take charge. They “talked to me,” and I listened. I wasn’t in charge of the story. They were.

Benefits: I got to know my characters intimately, and I really liked them.

Potential Pitfalls: At a subconscious level I used my “go where the characters lead” (aka pantser) style to excuse my lack of a compelling plot. By not exerting my authority and accepting my responsibility as the author, I ended up with a lackluster story that meandered. Sadly, I had a clueless, whiny heroine and a too-perfect hero. Because I was overly attached to my characters, I was blind to their weaknesses—or lack thereof.

Stage 4: Writing for the publishing professionals.

Despite the fact that the story had some flaws, my writing had improved technically. I entered some contests and ended up with an offer of representation. My excitement was tempered by reality, however, when I received my agent’s revision notes and learned that I had to rewrite the final three-quarters of the story. I set out to deliver a marketable story with all the necessary elements.

Benefits: I learned the value of working with a publishing professional who knows the business. I learned the value of plotting a story so I know where I’m heading and where the major turning points are before I begin. I experienced the rewards of producing a marketable story and the thrill of a first sale.

Potential Pitfalls: This is hard to admit, but I lost some of the joy at this point. Writing became more work and less fun. Once I had my contract, I experienced a debilitating case of Second Book Syndrome. I suffered a loss of confidence in my ability to produce a good story.

Stage 5: Writing for the reader.

I pushed through what my agent refers to as Sophomore Book Paralysis by writing. I plopped my backside in the chair and wrote even though I didn’t feel inspired. As I did, a wonderful transformation took place. I stopped writing for myself, contest judges, my characters, or even the publishing pros and began writing for the reader.

I found myself asking questions like these:

What can I do to make this scene more interesting for the reader?
What would make a delicious surprise for the reader at this point?
How can I increase the tension so the reader experiences a delightful rush?

Benefits: Writing, while still work, became fun once again. I picture the enjoyment the story will bring the reader and the resulting satisfaction that will bring me as its creator.

Potential Pitfalls: Inability to pull myself away from the computer to fix dinner, do laundry, or clean house because I’m having too much fun writing stories I hope will keep a reader from wanting to do the same because she’s enjoying the read. 🙂

• • •

Have you experienced any of these stages?
What have you learned from the stages you’ve been through?
Which stages have brought you the most enjoyment?


About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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24 Responses to The Rewards of Writing for the Reader

  1. Wilma Metcalf says:

    Really looking forward to that first novel!

  2. Olivia Newport says:

    Sounds like the good old “Learn by Doing” strategy. Excellent reflection on the process.

  3. This is SO good, Keli. Yes, I write with readers in mind but I’ll confess I’m still writing for myself. Which is why it’s really hard for me to delete certain things because I just love them! LOL Even though I know readers might not.

  4. Wendy says:

    Powerful breakdown. If I really think about it, I write for me and edit my work for the reader. That’s why editing is so challenging. I end up taking out lines I love, but that wouldn’t work for a reader, etc.

    This was a big step for me, learning how to do this–to take myself out things w/ editing.
    ~ Wendy

  5. Hey, Keli. I like this breakdown of the stages. I definitely wrote my first novel for me. It was more of a “let’s see if I can really write a novel-length story.” I still remember the looks I got from my husband when he read it. Yikes!

    I’ve tried writing for contest judges. I like this the least. I’m afraid to say this out loud, but I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever be good enough for multiple judges. Getting a 97 and a 66 on the same MS does that to you.

    Now, I’m in the stage of learning to write for the reader, agent, publisher. I want to hone my craft enough to produce a story that is always ready to take the reader to another place.

  6. Amy says:

    This was a great article. It makes sense to focus on how the reader will be appreciating the story.

    As with visual work, it’s difficult to get rid of areas that don’t fit in with the whole. Areas that are so compelling on their own, yet that distract or drag down the rest of the piece. One can get very attached to these areas, dialogues, descriptions, etc. I’ve had that problem!

  7. Thank you so much, Keli, for a very thought-provoking blog. I’ve experienced a few of these stages. My least favorite is the “entering contest” stage. I agree with another person’s comment that receiving massively discrepant scores can make me crazy, so I stopped entering contests. I used the suggestions from the judges that I thought would make my book better and discarded ones that were just nasty and not helpful.
    Thanks for the insightful post.

  8. Keli,
    I like how you put it into stages. I think my first book was all about me and what I liked. To some extent, the others are the same, but I want to write with the reader in mind. Can’t wait to read YOUR book!

  9. Cynthia Herron says:

    Keli, I think as readers we’ve all experienced some of those stages. The trick is not getting stuck in one stage too long like you said. Sometimes, it can indeed be a difficult balance!

  10. Susan Mason says:

    I think you’ve described the metamorphosis of a writer beautifully, Keli! I’ve experienced 3 of those stages – hope to combine the last two into one!
    Love getting a peek into other writers’ lives! Thanks!!


  11. I’m struggling with the time issue. When I get back to writing, if I do, I want to write to affect the reader, entertain and engage the reader, and to benefit the reader. If I can do this, and it will sell, I will consider my work worthwhile.

    Thank you for sharing your metamorphosis. It makes perfect sense, and it has landed you in a wonderful place. Blessings to you in your writing, Keli…

  12. Keli Gwyn says:

    Thanks for the great comments. I’m enjoying hearing your thoughts. Sounds like there are several who find the writing for contests stage a pain. It wasn’t my favorite, either, but I learned a great deal from that stage and like to think it will help me when my book releases and the reviews begin to appear. Like some of you, I’ve received disparate scores on contest entries. There is so much subjectivity involved in judging just as there will be from readers.

  13. It would make an interesting poll to hear what motivated the writing of everyone’s first novel. I’ve heard some say they had a message to get out, it was a catharsis, there was a need to see if they could write a complete novel, etc. I don’t think my first novel was written for any of those reasons, but I certainly did write it by the seat of my pants without knowing anything about crafting a story. I did a lot of ‘how to’ reading before I wrote the next one! Most of my stories answer the ‘I wonder what would happen…’ question, with a desire to explore plot possibilities. I’m not sure if that means I’m writing for myself or for the reader, but I’m loving the writing process.

  14. Wow, such wisdom and honesty packed into this post, Keli. Good stuff!

    I’m somewhere in the writing-for-judges or the writing-for-professionals stage, depending on the day. I love your advice about writing for the reader. Ultimately, publishing professionals want a book that will appeal to the reader, so it just makes sense to write for them.

    When I read through Kristen Lamb’s WANA book, I followed her advice and wrote out a detailed description of my future reader. And what a powerful exercise that was! I could almost see her face as she dashed around town dropping her kids off at gymnastics and karate, sneaking in quick reads in between. Now I just need to hone in on what plot point or attention-grabber will make her late picking her kids up. 🙂

  15. wosushi says:

    Thanks for sharing the phases you’ve gone through!

    I feel like I am usually writing for myself and/or the reader. I write first for myself, then read it thinking, would this grab someone’s attention? Are they going to love/hate/relate to the character?

    I’m sure at some point, there may be changes that need to be made to be publisher friendly, etc, but ultimately I write with the intention of making someone else laugh/think/want more.

  16. Beth Vogt says:

    What a fun but packed with insights post, Keli!! I appreciate your honesty. I slipped over to The Dark Side after vowing for years I’d never listen to voices and never, ever write fiction. And I’ve experienced a lot of the stages you’ve mentioned, including SBS. I love the questions you ask yourself as you write. Mind if I borrow them and paste them over my computer? ;o)

  17. Jill says:

    I’m a little backwards as a person. Your first step didn’t come as my first step. I had to learn that one later. Now that I’ve discovered what I want to write for myself and have actually done it, I need to go back to “write for the reader/follow certain rules/write to interest the pros.” It’s weird because I feel like I’m starting over.

  18. This hit home with me. I really need to start thinking stage five way–perhaps it’ll help me get this one revised finally! Thanks, Keli!

  19. Another helpful post, Keli – – thank you! 🙂 I am striving to be in Stage 5 – – but still have some work to do. ~ The most enjoyable for me was Stage 1 (writing for myself) – – so FUN when I just wrote without much (if any) thought to the important components a good story must have. I’ve learned SO much these past few years, and still have much more to learn.

  20. Tana Adams says:

    I think at this go around in my writing I’m writing for me/readers/critics we’ve al magically morphed into the same person.

  21. Julie Nilson says:

    I don’t usually read romance, but I have to say, I’m dying to read your first book!

  22. Insightful post. Okay, I’ve definitely written for myself. I’ve definitely written for the pub. pros. I can’t say I’ve ever written for a contest. And I don’t think I’m quite to the stage yet where I ALWAYS write for the reader. Like Wendy commented, I still have a hard time killing some of my darlings, but if an editor suggests it, I have no problem giving them the axe. Hmmm.

    And dang girl– 250,000 words!!!

  23. Thanks for your breakdown of these stages. I agree with what you’ve said and see how each one has its pros – and cons!
    Continued luck as you write!

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