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a thought on writing for the web

I was at a party this weekend, talking to a writer about the internet. Writers, professional writers, are always afraid of the net, because the concept of giving your words away for free is absurd at best and criminal at worst. But this writer wanted to talk, and I wanted to avoid standing in the corner looking at my feet, so we talked.

Anyone who knows me knows that I think with my mouth. It's as if my brain is only half capable of thought – it requires a dialog to finish the process. And in talking to this writer fellow (who was very nice by the way and knew, I think, a lot more than he was letting on), I had a thought I wanted to remember.


Here's the thought: Writing on the web isn't always about the audience.

In storytelling, there's always an audience – that's the telling part of storytelling. Same goes for songwriting and journalism. These are crafts where someone is creating an experience for someone else. The vision of the audience is always present in the author's mind.

But writing on the web can be more like conversation than performance. The audience can talk back, drown you out, or even throw you off the stage and put someone else up there. And sometimes there's no audience at all – it's a conversation with yourself. The same way art is often more about the artist working out some inner demon, writing on their web can be self-imposed (and self-involved). It's the mirror of the monitor – sometimes all you see is yourself.

Have you ever performed on stage? I think all writers should experience it at least once. When the spotlight is on you, everything fades away. You know the audience is there, but you can't see them. Eventually, all you're left with is the song, the story, the moment. Writing on the web can be like that.

There is, of course, no right way. Some of the best art comes from self-absorption. And some of the best stories are crafted with a specific audience in mind. I guess the lesson for the writer is just to try to be conscious of your audience when you're creating something that has an audience, and then to forget about the audience when you need to, too. Fortunately, on the web, we can do both.

» So. Hello audience! Do you write on the web? Do you think about your audience when you're doing it?

{ 12:17pm }



» An interesting thought . . . the experience of performance on stage is very dependent on the type of performance. Having taught university classes and lectured for well over twenty years that kind of performance is very much interactive. Writing online is potentially much more open to communication from your audience and your status is much less "elevated" but is it a matter of qualitative difference? I think it is but I'm not sure that you have identified that difference quite yet.

– M. Meyer  { 5.28.02 @ 1:42pm }

» When I first started my site, I didn't think about my audience at all, because I knew that I didn't have one. Granted, I wasn't about to spill any huge secrets knowing that they could come back to haunt me, but I started writing on the web mainly with the purpose of getting ideas out of my head and into some solid form. Over time, I've thought about my audience a little bit more, but really never to the point that what I write down would be influenced by what I thought someone might think. Sure, I sometimes wonder what people think of me, but know that the people who also know me in real life can (hopefully) distinguish anything that comes across as ambiguous that I put out on the web. Perhaps the reason I still don't have much of an audience is because I don't think of them enough... Aha!

aaron  { 5.28.02 @ 1:50pm }

» I guess part two of this thought is, while writing online doesn't have to be about the audience, the best writing, in any medium, does keep the audience in mind. Still pondering that....

Derek  { 5.28.02 @ 1:58pm }

» Years ago, I performed music for a living, first as a member of a garage band and later as a lounge single in a bar attached to a restaurant. I remember one night in particular, playing to a full house, many of them regulars, and suddenly everything being about the moment. We were a close-knit community, but all our energies were focused on that moment in time; I stopped being a performer playing to an audience and was simply a player in a space of time acting out a part the space demanded. It was an electric evening, one many of my regulars remembered years after. I've often wondered whether writing in general and writing on the Web in particular could be like that. If so, it would be a pretty amazing thing.

G.K. Nelson  { 5.28.02 @ 2:17pm }

» I think good writing must take the audience into account. How the audience will affect the writing depends on your intentions. For example, I write for a site that could be called a weblog, but it is not at all a personal diary. Every day I think of something banal and personal (of course being personal doesn't make it banal, that's just me) - I ask myself if it would be of any interest to my audience, and quite often decide not to write or publish. The success of the site has been defined as much by what we haven't written as it has by what we have written.

Interesting analogy to the stage - writing for the web does feel much like that strange sense you get, blinded by the stage-lights, knowing that there is an audience out there that you can't see - wondering how they will react.

Steven Garrity  { 5.28.02 @ 2:53pm }

» I got to the point where I needed to stop thinking about who was reading my site -- I was nudging my voice this way or that ("younger," "older") depending on who I thought was reading, wanting to make them feel at home. In the end it's really more monologue than conversation; the real trick is keeping yourself interested.

Mrs. Kennedy  { 5.28.02 @ 6:00pm }

» "In the end it's really more monologue than conversation; the real trick is keeping yourself interested."

I think Mrs. Kennedy really nailed it. Good stories come from things that writers are passionate about. I can always tell when someone is just writing to write. That can be o.k. but it never equals the story that must be told. The story that glides, shoots into the sky, or crashes into a million pieces.

You can write for someone else, and I'd call that craft. You can write and really work at something that sets you on fire. That's what I call art.

christopher  { 5.28.02 @ 11:35pm }

» I usually find that if I think of the audience while writing, I either quit or never publish it, because I don't really have all that much confidence in myself. Certainly not when compared to people like Derek, Stegall, Ben Brown, Lance, etc. When I put fingers to keyboard, it's mostly for my own enjoyment (or as some form of therapy, which really does make for horrible reading), and if someone else likes it and tells me, that's great. The few people who have taken the time to write to me have made me glow for days.

I guess I'm more of a pessimist than most though... just about every time I write something I worry about who's going to see it and how it could affect me negatively - ie and the whole job thing. Sometimes I fear that what is written in jest (or even in honesty, while in a bad mood) might affect my chances of landing a job. So I guess that plays into it a bit.

But yeah, most of the time, when I start thinking about the audience, I usually chicken out. Which is all the more reason why I was pretty amazed that I got on stage at Fray Day, even if it was very alcohol-assisted (or was it impaired?).

Dave  { 5.29.02 @ 12:10am }

» When I write something, I don't think about the audience. I think about the piece. When it's finished, I read it a few times for myself (usually, I have already hit the publish button by then). Then I start thinking about people reading it. That's when I start changing things, the minute I read the story through someone else's eyes. I like this process.

If you take a look at my site right now, you'll see an extreme example of audience influence. I wrote something about my trip in London, and got some feedback from someone involved in the story. The person felt I had misrepresented them.

I reread my stuff a few times more, sympathised - and have agreed to rewrite even though it involves rethinking the mood of the story.

Caroline  { 5.29.02 @ 2:24am }

» I was finding it hard to make art in my present life. So, I started writing stories because, with two small children and a full time job, writing was compact (the tools could easily be taken with me wherever) and I could parcel out the time in short, discrete pieces. In other words, writing fit my present lifestyle.

As an artist, I've always been interested in audience. The last time I had a exhibit of my work, I spent a good deal of time standing in the background watching people look and talk about my photographs on the wall (it's no coincidence I'm a photographer, a [benign] voyeur of sorts).

I am interested in my story's audience but don't write "to" them. Rather, I feel like I'm "including" them in my life.

While my stories are not conversations, per se, I write as if I'm talking to someone (to you, of course!). I think this fits the subject matter. And it gives the work a sense of intimacy more formal or rhetorical writing might not. What I mean is that there are some universal elements in being a human, living in this country (what ever demographics you want to include) and I start my writing from these primary emotions or conditions. The idea, however, comes from a specific interaction or event. I'm always trying to connect the two.

I remember the first story I ever told (as an adult). A friend of mine and I were camping in Yosemite and a bear came into our campsite overnight (twice). It scared the begeezes out of us. When we came home my friend attempted to tell our story to friends at a dinner we gave. He started his tale this way: "Guess what? A bear came into our campsite." He was shocked by the yawning and general lack of reaction.

As dinner parties always go, talked moved to other subjects. While in the kitchen, I pulled him aside and said "Let's start over." I went back out into the living room and started: Guys, we were attacked by a bear!"

Telling a story requires a hook. Once you've got them, then the hard work begins...

Jeff  { 5.29.02 @ 6:24am }

» I write on the web and I have moments were I am keenly aware of the "audience" and moments where I almost forget they exist. Most of the writing I do on my site pertains to my journey as a writer, a professional one. The rejection, the joy in writing something I am really proud of, writer's block etc. But even though the writing on my site is mine and I am not trying to sell it to anyone or get it published anywhere I am constantly aware of not trying to come off as lame or a bad writer just in case someone who would want to hire a good writer stumbles by. For me it has my blog has become almost a continual reminder that although I think of my writing as art if I want to make a living at it I also have to think of it as a business which makes me aware of the audience almost always.

Michelle  { 5.29.02 @ 6:57am }

» I try like hell *not* to think about the audience when I write on the web. Or, rather, I try not to think about the potential size, just 'cause the sheer magnitude might make me a) freeze up with stage fright or b) get too full of myself. Neither make for good writing.

Adam  { 5.29.02 @ 9:14am }

» christophe said:
"Good stories come from things that writers are passionate about."

Exactly! For myself, the joy of writing on the web is not about the writing itself. Rather it is about sharing the things that you are passionate about with others.

Steven Garrity  { 5.29.02 @ 11:36am }

» I think a lot of writing on the web has to do with personal satisfaction. As a person whose trade is journalism, a lot of what I have been doing only seems to satisfy others. Whether it be writing to please my j-school professors or editors at work, I have to conform to some sort of style or format.

I've been very disappointed with this sometimes and feel the quality of my writing has slipped. I feel it has lost a lot of creative flair and emotion. Recently, I have been trying to get my own website together again because I feel it might allow some of the freedom I have lost in making my transition from amateur to professional.

Writing for the web -- especially independent content -- needs to be self-satisfying, I think. If people write for the sake of pleasing others, true emotions and feelings could be lost.

That's what's great about writing for the web: you write first and foremost to please yourself, and part of the reward is coming across people who share the same feelings and interests. :-)

Erin  { 5.29.02 @ 5:23pm }

» I equate writing online with leaving a few pennies in a little dish, out on the counter by the register. People may take a penny or two for their own use, leave the pennies alone, or add to the collection themselves -- for other people to take or leave. The final number of people and pennies involved is unpredictable, and the number of one will not necessarily be related to the number of the other.

Writing for print, on the other hand, is not quite as loose; it's more like selling something for a fixed amount of hard cash. It might be more lucrative, or even more linear, but you're less likely to experience the small pleasure of sharing -- of both giving and taking -- either for the general goodwill or just for the heck of it.

Anyway... that's my two cents. Take it, leave it, or add to it.

April  { 5.29.02 @ 10:45pm }


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