A Writer’s Conundrum

As writers, the biggest challenge we face is to ascertain whom to write for. The world expects us to write something that would appeal to a reader. And, yes, it is our constant endeavor to ensure that our words capture a reader’s imagination and make them identify with our characters. However, that is not why we write, is it? We do not write to just make a reader happy. We write to make ourselves happy. Isn’t that so?

What you write needs to appeal to you. And, it behooves to reason that if it appeals to you then it would surely appeal to a reader too. Right? Er…actually, no. I can speak from personal experience and say that it’s not necessary that what you write may appeal to a reader and trust me it has nothing to do with your skill as a writer.

Confused? Well, don’t be. What I am merely trying to convey is that as a writer you cannot ignore the reader. If you are tempted to write for yourself then by all means muse. You can keep a journal, start a blog or even fill the pages of a diary by hand. But, when it comes to writing on any platform or even professionally (I mean publishing a book etc) then you cannot ignore the interest of your readers. So, you have to write keeping their perspective in mind. You have to write what they want to read.  Why do I say this? Well, simply because keeping a reader in mind helps you sell. Ultimately that is what it all boils down to – selling.

However, if you are one of those people who merely write for the love of writing and don’t care about a reader’s opinion on your work then, by all means, scribble away. But, if you want to publish something and get paid for it (at some date), then you have to focus on what a reader will like and serve that up.

I realized this when I transitioned from poetry to short story writing. Now, poems are essentially musings of the soul. People read them only if inclined poetically or when in the mood. However, short-stories have a wider audience. Initially, when I wrote, I drew from personal life and put a bit of myself in my stories. However, many of the stories were ignored by reviewers and readers. They could not understand my ramblings. I was hurt. It cut me deeply to learn that something that was a labor of my sweat could be so rudely ignored. This happened not just on one online platform but multiple ones. It was then that I realized that my approach was wrong. So, even though I did not change my voice or style (because that is our distinct identity), I started looking at my stories from a reader’s perspective. My stories remained the same but the treatment I gave them, changed.

Once I got my target audience right (my readers), once I was able to visualize who would read my story, I wrote with more insight. I was then able to write for various age groups and my stories received wider readership. They were accepted for various anthologies and I started winning competitions. You see, once I understood my target audience, I was able to sketch more believable characters. And, readers related to that.

For example, consider a story of a young boy named Abdul in Istanbul (an excerpt from one of my own stories). Now if the old me wanted to write for me, I would have just started the story with a description of Abdul. I would have sketched his character from the first paragraph itself. The story is about him after all, is it not? So, I would have written something like –

Young Abdul gazed out of the dirt-smeared, cracked glass window pane of his Abba’s shop. He was minding the shop for his father, a merchant in Istanbul’s* busiest souk*, the grand bazaar. Abdul was a strapping lad of seventeen with little interest in the family business. His Abba’s ill health had placed him at the family store. Their store was in the center of a long line of shops that sold curio items. Street vendors lined up on either side of the street selling their wares by displaying them on threadbare blankets.

There is nothing wrong in the above paragraph. It sketches the background concisely. However, it also appears to be just another run of the mill description. This is the point where a pertinent question needs to be asked – If a reader were to pick up my story and read the first paragraph; would he/she be interested to read the entire thing? The answer – no they would not. Why? Well because the above paragraph is annoyingly banal. Although grammatically correct and somewhat detailed, it lacks character.

So then what to do? Well, keeping the reader(s) in mind, shift tracks. Start the story describing the bazaars of Istanbul. Why, you ask? Well simply because if some background setting can be shown then that will intrigue a reader. And, if that can be achieved then a reader will be sucked into the story. The writer will be able to get them to imagine themselves in it and live it.

Now keeping that in mind I could change the above excerpt to  –

It was one of those days, languid and sultry. As the sun ascended, balminess increased and permeated the alleys of Istanbul’s* busiest souk*, the grand bazaar, the pride of the nation. The hawkers sitting on the street, their myriad wares laid on threadbare quilts started scuttling for cover, retreating into the shadows of the eaves of the shops. Rivulets of sweat ran down the bodies of the stray pedestrians and the handful of western tourists who were brave enough to venture out. Valiantly they swabbed at the perspiration, continuing to haggle for prices with the local merchants.

Tantalizing aromas of kebabs, shawarma, and grilled halloumi wafted out of the street stalls. Even in the oppressive heat, a smattering of patrons thronged them. A few other food vendors sat idly swatting at the flies hovering over their array of sweets like baklava, basbousa, and kunafeh. 

Dotting the street on either side were curio shops. So densely packed were the stores that their common walls gave the illusion of an entire lane being a single store, bifurcated with dividing walls. In one such shop sat Abdul, despondently gazing out of the dirt-smeared, cracked glass window pane.

I am sure you must have noticed the difference in treatment in both paragraphs. The tone and style of writing remain the same but the desired effect it has changed drastically. A story starting with the immediately preceding paragraphs would appeal more to the reader because they can now distinctly visualize themselves in the setting. Trust me, achieving that is half the battle won.

So, my conclusion to this writer’s conundrum – ‘who to write for’, is pretty straightforward. I believe I should write for myself but my story should read for the reader!

What about you? Do you concur or do you have a differing viewpoint?
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Sonal Singh

Sonal Singh is the Founder/Director of a manpower search firm called Rian Placements. She dabbles in travel and writing. She believes that life is a repertoire of anecdotes strung together in a colourful array, like a beaded necklace. The various situations that we encounter, the many incidents of every day, make life a melange of tales and conversational tidbits. And, this is what she attempts to capture through her writing.

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