You’ve read them before, Steinbeck’s rules for writing. Or maybe Vonnegut’s or Kerouac’s rules. Sometimes they are 6 simple rules like Steinbeck’s; sometimes the list is longer and encompasses more than craft like Kerouac’s. Most writers, I think, write them with hesitation and expect readers to take the advice with a grain of salt. After all, there’s no one way to approach writing. They can only really speak to what has worked for them and, at the most, maybe it gives the reader a new way to approach the craft.
Personally, I enjoy reading them. Deep down I hope each time I read one of these lists that some previously unknown kernel of wisdom will open up a whole new world for me. Most of the time, the lists serve to remind me of things I already know but sometimes lose track of, which I think can be said of many of life’s endeavors. It’s important to find ways to regain your focus. Sometimes a good list can give you some perspective or something to think about.
Recently I was reading over some of the advice posted in a series in The Atlantic. The point that stuck out to me the most was the intriguing and practical advice to imagine that you are writing to one person. Several writers speak to some variation of this rule.
For Steinbeck it was “Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.”
Stephen King might call this person the First Reader. The idea that you write with someone specific in mind that you respect and trust to be honest and you believe has good literary tastes. This person can be a friend, colleague or loved one. King’s is his wife.
Kurt Vonnegut puts it this way: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”
On a practical level it makes a lot of sense. You don’t want to open your book up to a barrage of criticism before its ready. Writing early on is very fragile, and it’s easy to get derailed by too much feedback too soon. You also want to have a reader who is critical without being harsh, encouraging without being too easy on you.
I can’t say I followed this advice during the composition of my first draft. I may have had a few particular people in mind from time to time, but not on a consistent basis. There’s something really inviting about the idea, and I look forward to using this approach during revision. I think it would’ve made the initial process a little bit easier for me.
Do you write for one reader? If so, who do you write for?