I’m writing this letter to you from an almost warm cabin in snowy Saskatchewan.
Although I’m out here because of family responsibilities, I’m also taking full advantage of the opportunity. The remote location has forced me to not scroll endlessly on my phone, and instead spend my time listening to podcasts, reading, and, of course, writing.
And all of this has led me to a small epiphany that I want to share, and hopefully, it can help you as well.
So, last year, I was lost.
My writing partner and I were working on our fourth book and I was just struggling. In fact, almost all my writing—including this newsletter—felt like a slow, deadening grind.
(The one bright spot was writing a new story every day for 31 days in the middle of summer—but more on that later.)
I figured it was worry, stress, fear—oh, and that giant ass worldwide pandemic—but recently I've begun to suspect something else: I forgot who I was writing for.
Now, that may seem stupid. Obviosuly I should be writing for my audience, the people who are reading my book or newsletter.
But that’s not exactly true.
I believe we should be writing for one specific person—and treat our work as a gift to them.
In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says that she writes her books as presents to people she loves.
“I wrote for an audience of two whom I loved and respected, who loved and respected me. So I wrote for them as carefully and soulfully as I could—which is, needless to say, how I wish I could write all the time.”
Similarly, in her guide How to Newsletter, Ann Handley says you should write to just one subscriber and not your entire list:
“Draft 2 opens the door.
See who is standing there? Your subscriber. (“Hi, Petunia!”) Invite Petunia in.
Did you notice how just one subscriber is standing there—not your entire list? That’s because the landing outside your door isn’t big enough to hold all those people. Rewrite to one person: one Petunia.”
In the beginning, I wrote the Shepherd & Wolfe mysteries for my wife and kids. I wanted to entertain them. And at the start, I did that but as we found success—especially on our third book—I forgot to focus just on my family and tried to satisfy the expectations of all our audience.
Similarly, in the early days of my newsletter, I was making it for a few specific people and sharing my favourite links. But as I tried to grow my email list, I started shaping it for a large unknown group of readers and forgot to share it for those same people that were with me at the start.
As you can see, the moment I tried to make it for everyone, I was doing it for no one.
So going forward, I’m going to do my work as a gift for a very specific person. Who I choose will change each time, based on the project.
For example, I wrote this letter to one person. They don’t know it’s for them, but it is.
And as we work on Book 5 of the Shepherd & Wolfe series, I'll be sure to do it again for just my wife and kids. Like the books before them, if they like it, I'm pretty sure others will as well.
(The other person I'll write Counios & Gane stories for is my writing partner, Angie. Early on, I always tried to surprise her with something unexpected on the page. If she got goosebumps, it usually meant we were on the right track with the story.)
And lastly, I have some future stories planned and I'll be sure to make them for very specific people.
One final thought about who I’m writing for.
Recently I shared a story about killer butterflies.
I'd sat on it for a while. I thought it was silly and I was a little embarrassed by it. It wasn't the great fiction I aspired to write.
Yet, after I wrote it, I read it to my daughter and wife and then to my son. My daughter said she liked it (she also helped come up with the idea), and it stressed out my son because he’s not a fan of horror. But the one person who really enjoyed it?
I took great pleasure in putting it on the page and sharing it with my family. And here is the key: sometimes I forget to entertain myself.
Perhaps it is to laugh, cry, be grossed out, or just dig a little deeper into my soul, but I need to remember to pay attention to what I like.
Because if I like it, someone else might as well.
To paraphrase something I heard on a podcast the other day, if only one person out of a million likes your stuff, then that still leaves you with 7753 people. (I've tried to remember where I had heard it, but the source has escaped me. If you recognize it, let me know.)
I think this is why those 31 stories I wrote in the middle of summer were so much joy. I was writing them for myself. I didn't have time to overthink them or aim towards a specific crowd. They were written in a desperate attempt to get them on the page before the clock struck midnight. I was writing with my gut, listening to what worked for me, which is, of course, what I liked.
I wrote them as a gift to myself.
So that's it. Now I share these questions with you:
- Do you write for someone specific in mind?
- Do you see your writing as a gift for someone?
- Have you ever lost your way because you tried to write for everyone instead of someone specific?
Besides Ann Handley and Anne Lamott, these are the other things that caught my attention the past two weeks.
- How to Write a Sentence (book) by Stanley Fish.
- ProWritingAid (grammar app) I use this and Grammarly, but I find this one helps me grow as a writer.
- Wordle (video game) - I know it has been around everywhere, but now that I've shared it with my family and students, I figured I should share it here. Also, the game was created as a gift for his partner.
- Dead Cells (video game) - After my son bought this, I've been playing it non-stop.
- The Expanse (science fiction TV show) - Its final episode aired this week on Amazon Prime and I will miss it. Those first three seasons were some of my favourite TV viewing.
That's it for this now.
Stay safe, warm, and well. Talk to you soon.