Write Like No One’s Reading

“Dance like no one’s watchin’.”

Chances are you’ve heard this saying before, probably on a poster with a black and white photo of some free spirit in a ridiculous pose. It’s attributed to a variety of people, including Mark Twain and Satchel Paige, even though it was first written in the 1987 song “Come From the Heart,” written by Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh. It’s yet another example that if you work hard and come up with a really witty saying, someone will inevitably credit it to Mr. Clemens.

I’m not here to talk to you about dancing. Having all the rhythm of an 80s Casio keyboard with dying batteries, I know better than to get near a dance floor. That’s the reason my wife and I shared a first game of skee ball during our wedding celebration. But the advice in that lyric isn’t always meant to be taken literally. Besides, if you pull a Mitch Hedberg and take out a few of those words and put in new ones, there’s a great lesson for writers in there too.

Write like no one’s reading.

No doubt some of you are scoffing at that advice, if not outright face palming. Very few people write without the intention of being read. While we all have the pipe dream of making Rowling money, recent reports have shown us that it’s hard to make a living with our fingers dancing across the keyboard.

So being read is probably the most compelling, and most realistic, motivation for us. It’s the reason we thumb through thesauruses and perform comma surgery before sending manuscripts off to agents and editors. We know there’s a chance our work will be sent back faster than an ice cold hamburger, but we load the pages into a manilla envelope or attach the file to another e-mail and try again. So I can understand why you might give me a funny look as you’re reading this.

I’m not saying you should do as Sylvester Stallone once threatened to do with his Rocky script and bury your work in the backyard and let the caterpillars be your only audience. The original phrase doesn’t tell us never to dance, after all! Instead, it’s urging us to move free of the fear of judgment. If our thoughts linger too long on how others feel about our moves, we’ll probably stay by the punch bowl all night.

That advice is harder to follow when we’re talking about writing. So many steps in the writing process require our work to be judged on some level. Agents, editors, critics and readers all have opinions that are crucial to our success. How do we reconcile that fact with the idea of writing like no one is reading?

For me, write like no one’s reading means that we write the story living in our hearts rather than trying to appeal to the capricious whims of the market and what’s hot. Beyond the fact that turnaround times often mean that the current Big Thing will be tomorrow’s cliché, we do our best work when we’re passionate about the project. How can we expect a story to resonate with an audience if we ourselves don’t care about it?

If you’re familiar with the movie industry at all, you’ve no doubt heard of the test screening. An audience composed of a broad swath of demographic groups sit down in a theater and shown a movie. After the screening, they tell the studio what they liked and disliked. These test screenings frequently impact the end product, leading to scenes being cut. Sometimes the cast is even brought back for expensive reshoots.

While these suggestions sometimes improve the film, there’s an air of artificially to them. In the pursuit of appealing to as many people as possible in the quest for the almighty four quadrant film(a film that can be sold to all four major demographic groups), these movies often don’t ring true in the same way as a film with a singular vision at its core.

The truth is, we never know how our stories might land with an audience. You might have crafted a book that appeals in every other way to a reader, but they went through a bad breakup with someone who shares a name with your protagonist. Maybe it takes place in a city where they have bad memories, they’ve read one too many fantasy novels recently, there’s too many food scenes while they’re in the middle of a diet or they can’t stand looking at the cover art. There will always be factors beyond our control, and it might work against our novel.

But I’d also argue that when we write like no one’s reading, the opposite can also happen. How many times have you been entranced by a book outside your normal genre? That never happens unless the reader can feel the author’s passion on the page. And that only happens when we let go of any expectations for the end product and just write our story. Sure, it might change with the help of your agent and an editor, but you’re part of that process. At its core, it’s still your story.

So go ahead and close the door, put some music on and do a samba across those keys. I suspect you’ll be happy with the results.

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