Do we write for the group, or the individual?

A recent article in the American Spectator started me thinking.

…there are consequences from severing rights from individuals and attaching them to groups. If groups can transfer benefits to their members, they can also transfer debits as well.

. . .

… insistence on attaching rights to the identity-group means detaching them from the individual. Ownership of rights collectively means that no one owns them individually. The rapid outcome, and one we are witnessing daily, is that … identity-group politics means an end to individually possessed rights.

There’s more at the link.

Given the current tension between group rights and individual rights, I thought it might be worthwhile to examine writing as a group-versus-individual craft.

  • Do we write for individual readers, seeking to engage their interest?
  • Do we write for members of a group, trying to appeal to the group’s interests in the hope that its members will want to read our work?
  • If we write primarily for one group, are we necessarily writing off (you should pardon the expression) other groups with different interests?
  • How can we write multiple-interest books for multiple groups or individuals with their own multiple interests?

I don’t know if the current plague of “wokeness” in our society has changed, or should change, the way we write:  but it’s a question worth asking in these benighted times.  I know that if I write my normal books, I’m going to attract one-star reviews and similar opprobrium from those who regard me as one step removed from a cross between Attila the Hun and a Neanderthal cave mother (and not much of a step at that).  Does this matter?  If I want to make a living as a writer, do I have to write cross-group as well as cross-genre?  Will sparkles and unicorn farts make for good military science fiction or sword-and-sorcery fantasy?

Over to you, readers.  What say you?


43 thoughts on “Do we write for the group, or the individual?

  1. I write for individual readers. And for me. Groups are made of individuals, and it is individuals who buy our work (unless we write textbooks that are aimed at the bulk market, and even then we are writing for the committee members and teachers, not the thousands or tens of thousands of students). Are groups buying our books? Are groups trying to keep us from having sales? Or is it individuals? I think it depends too on your market. If you write, oh, academic literary fiction, you are writing for a group far more than if you write sci-fi, or PNR, or sweet romance, or police procedurals, or westerns, or . . .

    I suspect there is a greater sense of group identity today than when I grew up in the ’70s-’80s, but even then I remember the Catholic Kids doing stuff, and the Jewish Kids doing stuff, or the Scouts (boy, girl, and Campfire), or . . . But those people still buy as individuals, especially now in the days of e-readers when you don’t have to let other people know what you have on your phone or Kindle or Nook.

    1. To finish the thought: Write the book. Then find the individuals who want to read the book. Groups don’t collectively buy books… and the individuals who buy books and like them form a group. We once called them fans.

      Don’t reverse cause and effect. Individuals make the group, not the other way around.

      1. The curious exception to that rule is when the book you write becomes a required purchase by a significantly large group. Note I said purchase not necessarily read as the benefit is derived from the virtue signaling by owning a copy. Think of any of the several million dollar advance goat gagers ghost written for a certain class of movers and shakers.

        1. But even there it’s individuals deciding they want to be associated with that group. And trying to chase that kind of thing is crazy making. Hitting a moving target with a blind fold on. (Presuming the book is actually moving and selling in this case rather than the advance being a cover for something else. Pun intended.)

  2. I try to write books I’d like to read. I don’t know how to write for any other audience.

  3. I write for… well, for me. Because if it doesn’t entertain, amuse, challenge, and thrill me, then it won’t make it out of my brain.

    But I also write for about 10 people, ranging from my Calmer Half through some interesting gents with interesting backgrounds, to my few female friends who grouse with me about the lack of competence in protagonists, and lack of realistic relationships and economically, ecologically, and culturally realistic worldbuilding. (Not all of them have the same issues, and not all enjoy the same genres, which is probably part of why I end up in the weird spot I do.) If I can’t make my alpha readers have a better day instead of a worse one when they read a chapter, I didn’t do it right.

    Then again, I’m okay with the fact that I’m narrow-casting, not broad-casting. Other writers, ones looking for writing things with blockbuster potential and movie potential, build in up front that they want to make it appeal to a wide audience, and build in characters and scenes to appeal to those target audiences. There are certain things you want to do to make your thriller “relevant”, and your adventure story “appeal to the Asian market”, and like writing for YA, the honest reality is that a lot of those things have more to do with appealing to the gatekeepers (the movie makers, trad pub editors and marketing departments deciding who’s getting push, or in YA, the teachers, school librarians, and mothers with the credit card) than with the actual audience.

    That doesn’t necessarily make their stories better or worse as a whole, it just makes them differently focused.

    Then again, and here’s the grain of salt to take with my advice: I’m not looking to support myself for a living with what I write. So I don’t have to worry if my stories only appeal to a few people. If you’re looking to maximize return on the market? If you have the intention of capturing lightning in a bottle and getting 1% of the North American english-speaking population to buy and read you?

    Might be different calculus.

    1. And you are writing for me although I am none of the above. You and several other writers I found by reading this site. I’m hanging out in the woodwork hoping for more of the good stuff.

      1. You’re one of the reasons I go through the pain in the fourth point of contact of copyediting, formatting, and publishing!

        Poor Peter has volunteered for the copyediting this round. He loves me, he really, really loves me.

  4. Dorothy sayeth: “I write for… well, for me. Because if it doesn’t entertain, amuse, challenge, and thrill me, then it won’t make it out of my brain.”

    This, exactly. I write the books I want to read. If others want to share the reading, great! If not, I’ll still write what makes ME happy, because otherwise it won’t happen at all.

    And my reaction to being told I must be politically correct is… to do the opposite. If Snidely Snowflake wants to leave a bad review… well, reviews count by how many, not by how good. And those who read one-star reviews by now know how to interpret them.

    Then again, I’m not dependent on books or readers to make a living. But remember that there are a lot more readers like us than there are readers like them. And those who snowflake all over the reviews are not paying customers anyway, but they sure are free advertising to other perverse-minded folks.

    Also, what wyrdbard said.

    1. Tom Kratman used to post bad reviews on his web site. I pointed a friend there, and he was impressed enough to buy several of Tom’s books. If that kind of people were *that* triggered, it must be good stuff…

      1. I vaguely recall that I first found y’all through someone’s rantings about the horribleness. “Oh yeah? Lemme look.” And here I am today.

  5. Everything I do with communication works better when I have a narrower, more specific audience in mind.

    I do not know how to communicate with the audience of ‘everyone’. I also do a lot of my communication by feeling, so have to know the audience in question, instead of only having an abstract intellectual understanding of it.

    I also tend to start trying to communicate because of some inner fixation. When the fixation is too weak, I can let myself stay trapped inside my own head, and not communicate at all. When it is too strong, it overcomes judgement and skill, so I don’t consider the audience. If you’ve ever tried to ‘reverse engineer’ one of my statements, figure out what audience I am trying to address, and concluded that I was insane this time, this is probably what happened.

    I do not always have a useful understanding of who my audience is, and how to reach them. Knowing that I have an audience, and that they have an interest in the topic, helps me out a bunch.


    Individual author process variation implies that my experiences cannot be extrapolated to the whole of creative writing.

    I think accepting that one cannot predict and control who gets something from communication attempts is a reasonable expectation/goal. Then, anyone you reach, who gets something you you threw out in faith that it /might/ do someone good, is a bonus.

    I am definitely crazy; this morning after the second time I woke up, I crudely outlined a six part essay to orient people on statistical process control as applied to certain human processes. Because of my own drives, and some things that were said, not because I have a real audience of someone who a) does not know this stuff b) needs to learn, can learn, and is willing to try to learn. Then I set it aside, because I have a pressing need get myself together and write some business emails. (First wake up involved a way to explain differential equations, that maybe isn’t anywhere near as innovative as I initially thought. Still, may have made some progress in understanding them.)

    PS: I’ve drifted off into ill-relevant tangents. Haven’t deleted/edited that last paragraph, because it does illustrate a point. In writing, I am often able to be more coherent than I am in person.

  6. I write for myself, telling the story I want to read. Also, the voices in my head of their stories to tell and they won’t have it any other way.

    Does this make it harder to market? You bet it does. On the other hand, I *hope* what I’m writing doesn’t read like every other mass-market chocolate chip cookie in the jar. That is, my unique voice and viewpoint make for a story that is memorable, instead of forgotten within seconds of eating; I mean reading.

    1. > every other

      That’s something I see a lot of, mostly in post-2000-ish writing. Generic McBooks. Through the Miracle of Word Processing, they’ve been fiddled, edited, re-edited, slanted, unslanted, polished, fed-back, polished some more… they pass all the technical criteria for “good writing”, but all the spiky bits are smoothed off and the author’s voice has been polished away.

      Author voice *counts*. As a customer, I have more books in your genre than I can read. Your job is to sell me *your* book, not a McBook. My shelves are full of books with author’s voice – Vance, Laumer, Simak, Norton, Heinlein. Their voices are all through their work, like they’re invisible characters.

      I can get a McBook anywhere. Don’t write McBooks. Write *your* book, *your* way. Maybe I don’t like it, but I’d be likely to try another in the future. Not every story resonates with me, not every style is to my taste. But if it’s a McBook, then you’re a McAuthor, and not worth my time, and you have so many competitors you’re not likely to get any more of my money.

      1. Generic McBooks largely correlate with writers critique forums, where the object seems to be sanding down not only the rough edges but also the bas reliefs. With which I became sufficiently disgusted (having watched that crit process ruin at least a couple budding authors who’d otherwise have been remarkable, but the culture is “All crits are valid” so there was no fighting it) to mini-rant, preserved here (made very polite for Hatrack):

        Note in particular the linked essay on “Fine Lines and Wrinkles”.

        And… Why Everyone Shouldn’t Like You (link in the above is dead)
        hollylisle DOT com/writing-integrity-why-everyone-shouldnt-like/

        The other problem is that new writers have become way too imitative, so they pretty much all write the same stuff with different details (too many want to write the next big YA dystopia or UF romance, or the next more-grimdark-than-thou, or whatever is the hot-seller this week). Some of this probably derives from fanfic culture, but more from a lack of exposure to much of anything else.

        Or why I rarely read new books anymore. One memorably gave me such a need to wash my brain out that I fled to Gutenberg and read whatever was the first old fiction my eye fell on. Happened it was a western short by Robert E. Howard…. and I found myself thinking: I’d forgotten what a good *writer* he was.

        1. Margaret Atwood said (I’m paraphrasing) that once you remove the bones, muscle, skin, hair, and clothes, skeletons all look alike. That is, bare bones are bare bones so what’s the difference?

          This is also why comic books start looking alike: everyone draws the Marvel way as if there is no other way. But there is.

          1. Same with fiction. I’ve noticed a lot of utterly interchangeable characters in recent years, as if there are no characters available other than yet another perky/snarky young woman for teens to identify with. (Glah. Instant back-on-shelf. I’d like some mature and unique characters for a change, please…)

            1. After a few weeks the “push” pattern at the regional B&N really stood out, in both fiction and non-fiction. All the girls in genre fiction are strong-willed, independent, smart-alek, and have waif-fu. All the male protagonists are minority, or gay, or minority and gay. Unless it is paranormal romance, where pale males can be protagonists if they are Byronic vampires or were-lions or . . . something.

              Oh, or Mafia dons with a tragic past [W?T? Actual Fark???] in need of saving by a beautiful, determined— Yawn. It’s the Glittery Hoo-Haw again.

              1. I find myself wondering how I would go about writing a satisfactory romance plot with a crime boss hero, without doing any cheating.

                1. The Key IMO is to have the “Bad Guy” in love with the “Good Gal” and somehow seeing that he had to prove himself worthy of her.

                  IE Her love for him isn’t likely to change him unless he loves her and acknowledges that he has to change.

                  Not that I could write that.

                  1. Yeah, I was thinking that if my crime boss hero is no longer a crime boss at the end, I am cheating on the goal I set for myself.

                    Got to wondering about “If her circumstances are horrible enough, spouse to a crime boss might look good”. Which violates my understanding of what a legitimate romance plot requires.

                    Basically, in this problem I appear to have handicapped myself far beyond what my skills can handle.

                  1. I was thinking of that as cheating. Because of some of the ‘actually, organized crime is good, because capitalist governments are evil’ stuff.

                2. Have you read Zelazny’s “Today We Choose Faces?” You got yer Mafia don out of cryonic storage, last man standing in the rubble of a post-apocalyptic interstellar civilization. No romance, though.

                  Zelazny could *write.* When he felt like it… he claimed he liked to “experiment with styles”, but Faces is one of those Frankensteined-from-disconnected-bits, not-quite-New-Wave products, that I’m slowly beginning to think of as more Zelazny being lazy than “experimental.” But even with those strikes, there are some scenes in there that grabbed my attention decades ago, and the crumbly old paperback has survived many cullings-of-the-shelves.

                  1. Not yet. I only got around to getting Lonesome October, and reading it, a year or two ago.

            2. I tell people that The Princess Seeks Her Fortune is unique; it has a typical fairy tale heroine.

              I get some funny looks, but no one ever cites a counter-example.

  7. This blog entry made me realize something quite odd. I wrote a non- fiction book twenty years ago that is used in certain homeschooling circles even today. And someone from that group reviewed my fiction book and recommended it as a fun read. That is obviously the group I should be thinking of, or perhaps individuals in that group, when I try to think who I am writing for beyond myself.

  8. I imagine that many people look at book reviews in the same way they look at Reddit comments. Sorting by controversial is about the same as sorting by 1 star reviews and seeing what the reviewers are complaining about. Many times it’s the complaints about books/games that make me want to read/play them.

    That being said, Amazon probably has a way of sorting things where higher reviewed books are more visible to customers. If the aim is to sell more content to more people, then treading somewhat carefully is probably a good idea. I don’t really feel like there’s a way not to offend people who see themselves as activists though. They think it’s their righteous duty to find sexism/racism in things (regardless of whether that sexism/racism is there or not) and shame people. I feel like the search for wrongdoing often prevents them from actually enjoying anything. Even if you avoid all the touchy subjects, you’ll be criticized for not not having a hispanic gay female protagonist with a learning disability.

    The horde of folk who complain about the smexiness of Black Widow’s outfits in the new movies are a perfect example. Women should apparently be able to walk around naked, but her outfit is unzipped too much, so the directors/costume designers are clearly objectifying her. None of them seem to even comprehend that it’s literally her character–her character’s name, background and personality all speak to her being a seductress and they want her to dress like a nun. I want to write for more than myself, and I try to not inject politics/religion into things so as not to be unnecessarily controversial, but accommodating the woke crowd is a tall order. I don’t want my audience to be people who can’t even grasp character backgrounds that are legit spelled out for them.

    1. Never heard the word smexy before, but I don’t get out much.
      Yeah. Why can a woman walk around wearing only a layer of paint but a touch of skin in an otherwise clothed body is … wrong?

      1. You have to reference it to THE PATRIARCHY (always capitalized in their heads). Naked body in a layer of paint “shocks THE PATRIARCHY.” A bit of skin “titillates THE PATRIARCHY.”

        Of course, I’m not sure about what THE PATRIARCHY has for standards any longer. I was kicked out of THE PATRIARCHY club a long time ago; e.g., I didn’t think that Seven of Nine in the cat suit was the sexiest looking female on Star Trek: Voyager – my vote went to Captain Janeway, followed by B’Elanna Torres (Kes would be in there somewhere, if they hadn’t killed her off as a character). Or Firefly – Kaylee was by far the best looking in her coveralls! (The one episode where they dressed her up “like a girl should look,” she wasn’t ugly, mind you. Just not quite as attractive.)

        1. I would think a naked body in a layer of paint, with bouncing, unrestrained bosom, would be far more titillating than fully covered up other than a zipper pulled down two inches to expose the hollow of the throat.

          But I don’t get out much so what do I know?

    2. I’ve noticed that lately someone has formed a Righteous Duty to trawl through author listings on Wikipedia, expounding on how various works do or don’t fit the current narrative. The don’t-fits are the usual wacccist/sexxxxxist drivel, but the do-fits are… very postmodern, that’s the best I can say of their analyses.

  9. I’m like Margaret, I write for myself. (Mostly to get the characters to shut up, but we don’t say that part out loud. 🙂

    Some of what drives my work is a deep dissatisfaction that the type of stories I like are not getting published anymore. There are all sorts of people who will leap up and say that those 60s/70s/80s stories were too White/Eurocentric/Patriarchy/what the hell ever, that John W. Campbell was a racist, and the new way of making everything about politics is the way to go. To those people I say look at the pitiful Hugo nominations this year, and the fact that the -entire- administration staff and the chairman of DisCon quit, and I think the situation becomes very plain.

    I will never write for those people. Others can, its a free country, but I won’t. No way.

    Really, I’m writing down the current movie that’s playing here inside my brain. Trying for the type of story I want to read. I’m sure this is the worst possible way to be an author. No writing to the market or choosing what demographic or genre to write to, just writing whatever comes to mind and then sticking a cover on it. But, at least I get the story I wanted. ~:D

  10. I write primarily for myself, in my own voice, with my own passion, from my own experience and imagination. I can do no other. Hopefully, what I have to say is sufficiently congruent with the rest of humanity that it will appeal to those who are sufficiently like me. That is my target audience, admittedly a very fuzzy target. I don’t much care about the demographics, because the external observables have so little to do with the soul. If I’m that much of an outlier, so be it.

  11. Attempting to please everyone will result in pleasing no one. An extremely old adage.
    A sushi chef might be able to add enough spice to a dish to at least make me say “meh” instead of “yecch.” But doing
    so, he would (hopefully metaphorically) end up sliced thinly by the many people that love sushi.
    You might manage to put enough “other stuff” into one of your westerns that I would read it if nothing else looked more interesting – and every lover of western tales would slam them against the wall before finishing the first chapter.
    Not that a bit of very judicious mixing can’t garner a few more readers. I don’t read cozy mysteries – but Sarah mixed in furniture refinishing as a major theme in hers – and I happen to be a hobbyist furniture maker/repairer/occasional refinisher. So I buy them (may I have another, please, Ma’am?). That, however, is an extremely narrow overlap on the main Venn circle of “people who want to read these books.”
    Most comments I see above are of the form “I write for myself.” That at least guarantees one person that enjoys it – and 1/0 is infinity*. To make money at the business, of course, you need more than one fan – but that isn’t all that hard to achieve with sufficient work at it.

    *Mathematicians out there – yes, no, it isn’t, it’s undefined. Work with me here…

    1. > Westerns

      Over the years, I’ve probably read half of Louis L’Amour’s westerns. It’s not my genre, and L’Amour’s work is wildly variable in style depending on what market a particular story was originally written for, but I can pick any random volume up with the knowledge that there will be a story, that it will have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that the characters will behave in a rational fashion given their stated backstories and situations. The book might not be to my taste, but I haven’t walled one yet, either.

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