Most people think about their writing as a way to communicate. So, as we're writing, we must have some sort of reader in mind. Maybe this is your "target audience" when you think about publishing your book. Or maybe -- a mindset that I advocate and try to preserve -- the person you are writing for is yourself. No matter who this reader is, it's a good idea to recognize the reader you have created for yourself and to figure out how anticipating that reader affects your writing.
Mary Yukari Waters once told me that her ideal reader is herself...but not exactly herself. She said she imagines a better form of who she is, a copy of Mary that is cooler, smarter, funnier, deeper, and superior to her in every way. She writes for that better person in the hopes that, when all is said and done, her own imperfection in her craft will result in a piece of writing that is perfectly suited for her. Other writers may have a broader audience in mind. For lack of a more personal example, a man who writes scientific stories for lay people has to keep in mind that not everyone understands the fertilization process of a sea urchin, even if the writer himself knows it like the back of his latex-gloved hand. That writer cannot simply focus on self-indulgence.
When I think deeply about this (and it does take some effort), I realize that I have two types of readers in mind. The first group is a bunch of highly intelligent, no nonsense people. The type of people that refuse to let you get away with any BS. Maybe it's best to call them critics. I see them as knowing more about my subject matter than I do, more about people than I do, and more about emotions than I do. They're waiting to judge me and bring up any flaw in my writing. My second reader is myself in the future. I realize that a lot of what I do is determined by my fear of embarrassing myself down the line. An early story that I got published online was called "Maya's Secret Flavors." Just writing about it now makes me break out into a cold sweat. It's about a college student, Maya, who has an affair with an older man only to find out that he's married. As a result, she ends up throwing herself at a younger, more innocent guy and ruining her reputation in her own eyes. I'm actually fine with all that. The clencher, the part I'm embarrassed about, is that the entire story had this extended metaphor that compared her heart to a lump of cheese that was left in the sun. Ugh. I was so happy when the journal collapsed and my story was no longer floating around in the world. Or maybe it's still out there.
I don't think that the readers I have in mind are ideal. They may not even be healthy. But this is who floats around behind my computer screen as I write. As a result, I think I push myself harder to find the real emotions in my characters and to do the proper research on my subject matter. On the downside, these mental readers also make me feel defensive, and that may be limiting my creativity. So, I have to remember that whenever I am being too safe in my writing.
Who are the readers you have in your head when you write? How do they affect what you create?
And, if you don't have a reader, keep in mind that your best work probably results from writing what you want to read rather than writing what you want to write.