Many years ago, a colleague, Rus VanWestervelt, shared with me a graphic that illustrated his idea of the relationship between a writer and his reader. He described this relationship as a continuum wherein the writer never leaves the piece, but the audience doesn’t enter until a piece of writing has been officially established as a “draft,” that is, a piece of writing that has a future for the writer and a future for a reader who happens upon the piece. For this reason, he asserted, as long as the writer keeps the intended audience in mind during the drafting, revising, and editing stages of the manuscript, success is almost certain.
The Writer-Audience Continuum
As a creative non-fiction writer, Rus describes the initial stage in his writing process as an exercise in free writing. Most writers engage in various pre-writing strategies, at which time we may or may not know who our audience is and what they expect from our text. In either case, during this earliest stage, when the ideas may be unformed and unfocused, we concentrate on getting the writing started or locating the information we need; that leaves the field of ideas wide open.
When the writer envisions an audience, and he begins to define that audience more specifically, his field narrows in service of that audience’s needs. The role of the audience in his writing widens, gaining more and more importance as he works toward and through revision and finally to editing. At the end of the process, when the text is ready to publish, the audience and the text have achieved a balance, so to speak. Rus contends that the balance must be there, otherwise the writing will not speak to its audience in the way we intend.
The concept illustrated in this continuum is one of equality between the writer and the reader. Neither the writer nor the reader is marginalized; they both remain in the writing. Through this sense of equality and balance, the writer’s voice is heard.
The Writer-Audience Continuum and Fiction
In re-examining this continuum, I wondered about the degree to which it applies to writers of fiction as well as non-fiction. It seems to me that non-fiction, creative and otherwise, is more obviously purpose-driven than fiction, that the writer has a compelling reason to inform his audience regarding the topic at hand. With fiction, our purposes may be more subtly defined. So the question becomes: How does our concept of audience change, for example, if we are writing a historical novel set in the southwestern desert in the twelfth century. To what degree does this novel inform? Is it aimed at readers who are interested in learning about the prehistory of Southern Arizona? Not likely.
Purposes for Writing-Reading Fiction
- Pleasure: We derive pleasure from reading stories however false and unreal. Fiction takes us to a world where we dream to be but cannot.
- Inspiration: Stories about fictitious people can inspire real people to improve their lives, improve the lives of others or do good in general.
- Delight: Some people delight in others’ happiness and some in others’ sorrow. In the latter case, it is better for that other to be fictitious than real.
- Arousal: Fantasy of any kind leads to an arousal that may not be achieved by anything real.
- Wisdom: Learning from a fake story is better than falling into the pit yourself. Traditional tales of folklore were mechanisms of passing wisdom down generations.
- Creative release (for the writer): Fiction lets writers explore the depths of their imagination. Without imagination, their [sic] would be no dreams and without dreams, there would be no progress. We’d be a dull society.
Because Goel’s sixth reason identifies the writer as the audience, I think the continuum still applies. How does our concept of audience change when we are writing fiction? I would suggest it does not change all that much. Regardless of what kind of writing we are doing or who our audience is, there is a point at which our potential readers join us in our writing process and travel with us on our journey from idea to publication, reminding us of our purpose and keeping us on task.
Note: The graphic and selected text in this post were included in my book, Doing Academic Writing in Education: Connecting the Personal and the Professional, co-written with Dr. Janet C. Richards, published by Erlbaum, 2005.