Following our post about dismissing the idea of writer’s block and letting go of perfectionism, I wanted to address another thought process that can stop your writing in its tracks: who you think about while drafting.
Changing who that person is, who you’re imagining reading your work, at various phases of the writing process, is one of the most crucial steps to take in breaking through times when you’re stuck or are being too hard on yourself before your work deserves criticism of any kind.
The Writing Process
Just so we’re all on the same page, you’re probably familiar with the “writing process” and have heard it preached for a long time: prewriting/brainstorming, drafting, revision, editing. Some people throw proofreading in at the end, so if that’s you, go ahead and add a fifth step!
However many times we’ve been told that this is the process, though, how often have you actually gotten to practice, or allowed yourself to practice, revision?
That was the writing breakthrough for me personally. In the last several years, after I discovered Peter Elbow and his freewriting technique during my MA, my writing process has undergone a fundamental shift. That change has done so much for improving my confidence and output, which is the ideal kind of writing cycle to be in and so much better than the one I was trapped in before.
When we add in revision and allow ourselves to critically re-read our work after we’ve freely allowed ourselves to produce it, our output shifts. We’re no longer writing under duress, and our words arrive on the page more naturally.
Changing the Picture
The change I would ask you to make in your own drafting process is to alter who you think about during the prewriting and drafting stages.
Wait to think about your intended audience.
Instead, develop an ideal audience.
Defining the Terms
The people that you eventually want to be reading your work are your intended audience. Maybe they’re your ttrpg group, or people who love sci-fi for your novel series, or D&D enthusiasts you want to listen to your podcast.
Your ideal audience, though, or ideal reader, is someone who is kind and easy for you to talk to. Likely, they’re someone you know well.
For me, my husband Jonathan is my ideal reader. He often knows what I’m trying to say when I can’t figure out how to say it, and he’s thoughtful toward my work. Most importantly, in this case, I’m very comfortable communicating with him. Nothing about our relationship or how he thinks of me is going to change because I wrote something poorly.
In dire straits, when I really don’t like what I’ve written, my ideal audience might be my dogs; they’re pretty happy with me regardless.
The New Vision
When you’re writing to someone who is easy for you to talk to, who is good at listening to you, it’s a lot easier to keep going with a draft than when you’re paralyzed by fear because what you’re writing isn’t good enough for the people you want to be reading it.
Of course it isn’t. It’s a draft, so it doesn’t have to be.
Ideally, nothing we read in a published or official form has been written linearly, perfectly, and all in one draft. It’s always the result of multiple drafts, probably over an extended period of time.
But how often do we put the pressure on ourselves to make something perfect the first time? Those expectations are unfair and unreasonable.
We need to extend the same grace to ourselves as writers as we would extend to others, to the people we love.
Perfectionism and Procrastination
I don’t know if you struggle with staring at a blank screen that glares back at you, the cursor blinking, daring you to write something on the page. Maybe you have trouble sitting down to work on a project because the voice in your head is so mean about it, so you keep delaying.
Expecting our drafts to be perfect from the get-go is a recipe for dissatisfaction, self-discouragement, and procrastination.
I bring this up as we’re discussing ideal vs intended readers because that’s one of the primary spaces where I see myself and other writers getting stuck in a cycle of procrastination instead of writing a not very good first draft but at least having something to work with from there.
We have to write the one draft in order to get to the others.
And if we can change who we’re picturing, writing the first draft, choosing someone who is easy to talk to instead of the person or people we’re struggling to find the right words for, we make the process of creation a lot easier on ourselves.
We can figure out the tone and the wording later. Getting words onto the page is the first battle. The momentum shifts in our favor from there.
So what does your ideal reader look like?
I had a friend who kept a plant above her desk that was very kind and said “yes, that’s brilliant” to all of her ideas. Maybe your ideal reader is you, a few years ago, dreaming that one day Future You would have the courage to start what you’re working on now.
I was listening to a podcast with Brene Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert earlier this week, “Big Strong Magic” from season one of Magic Lessons, and they said something really profound: what keeps you writing on day two is not determination or self-control. It’s kindness, empathy, self-forgiveness. It’s not for lack of discipline that we have trouble returning to our manuscript on day two when we fell short of our writing goal on day one. It’s for lack of self-love.
How would we speak to a friend in that instance? And how different is that from how we speak to ourselves?
I’d love to hear, in the comments below, how you deal with premature self-criticism and procrastination or who you picture when you are in the early drafting stages.
There’s time later for us to tailor our words to our intended audience. But our words need somewhere to start that is more than happy to receive them, a place that will treat them gently as they develop.