Who are the best writers?

I often hear from writers that their best work happens when they aren’t writing to get published, but writing exactly those words that gets their point across. In other words, they write for themselves. The end product, I guess, happens to be something publishers like.

I’ve found this to be true in my own writing. Most of my best work wasn’t written with a particular target audience in mind. I was writing down my thoughts as exactly as I could. I didn’t pick the topics or choose the words based on how I expected them to go over with the publisher or my readers. In fact, some of my most popular articles have been sections of papers I wrote for class—words I had expected only my professor to read, he or she being more concerned with the structure and evidence for my argument than my tone or voice.

But deep down, I doubt that this type of thinking can carry a writer from good to great. Sure, most writers might actively fight the impulse to “write for the publisher.” But what about the best, most popular writers? Stephen King, Malcolm Gladwell, J.K. Rowling—do they really not think much about their reader when they write? Are they absent-minded geniuses whose written private thoughts happen to be words, arguments and stories to which the whole world can intimately relate?

I once asked this question to the executive editor of a major print and online magazine. We were grabbing lunch before he lectured at my college. He said it goes both ways. Some writers write for themselves. Their submissions are anywhere from incomprehensible and totally unrelatable to downright genius. Others are keenly aware of public opinion and the type of person they expect to read their work. They write with particular people in mind and sometimes end up saying very little at all, too aware of counterarguments and likely misinterpretations to get their point across with any expediency. But these types rarely put out terrible work—they’re too self-conscious for that.

I can definitely think of writers in both camps. One of my favorite writers, David Bentley Hart, falls firmly in the first one. His work can be almost impossible to digest, often full of references to things only people with his specific training would understand. But it’s also deeply personal. After reading his work, I’m left with little doubt that I understood him correctly—not just the words he used, but the thoughts that gave rise to those particular words. I’d even bet that I’m fairly certain of how he thinks and how he’d react to this or that essay or claim.

Another of my favorites is Malcolm Gladwell, who I think falls square into the other camp. He’s keenly aware of what the public wants. He writes at a level that maximizes the size of his potential audience, given the average reader’s intelligence. I can’t be sure, but he seems to write with that audience always in mind, choosing topics and examples highly-relevant to his work’s real-world political and cultural context. When reading his work, I don’t think I’ve once stopped to wonder why he chose this or that example, why he used this or that word. His tone is completely natural. He’s a briliant written conversationalist.

These are both theories, of course. I can’t read other people’s minds. Maybe that means I’ll never know the answer. But I’m at least convinced that thinking about how these approaches differ and finding some happy medium is the key to writing well. Or perhaps what really matters is the act of searching for this medium—not necessarily finding it.

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