The other day I was talking with a scholar who said “all my career, I’ve been writing what other people want; I want to write about the things I think are important.” When writing feels like you are doing it for yourself—to share something about which you are passionate—there is a stronger positive motivation, which is good. By contrast, writing for someone else often deadens enthusiasm, even if that lack of enthusiasm is balanced against a strong negative motivation (like fear of failing to advance in your career as a scholar). But writing for yourself and writing for others need not be a pair of conflicting motivations, and being able to keep both of these motivations in balance can help focus your efforts and provide useful guidance in writing the work that you want to write.
In the early years of schooling, it’s easy and common (but not universal) to develop an adversarial relationship with writing: you write on topics chosen by others and submit your work to their criticism and their grading. But the relationship between writer and reader can be cooperative rather than competitive.
Writing for yourself
I’ve known artists—writers, musicians, painters, architects—who were primarily interested in creating art that matched their vision. Similarly, a philosopher or scholar may simply be seeking some understanding or truth without regard to educating others. There is nothing wrong with this; indeed, good work comes out of being motivated by the pursuit of your personal vision. A writer driven by their own interest is far less likely to struggle to stay motivated when the project hits a rough spot (as projects often do). And in such cases, it’s often true that others would also appreciate that same work, without concern for pleasing any audience.
Many writers, however, are not writing from such a personal motivation, at least in part because they have developed a responsive relationship with writing—they write when forced to please others—that keeps them from writing for themselves.
Writing, like speech, is a tool for communication. If you think of using writing for the same purposes as speech, it can facilitate a more cooperative view of writing. People often speak for cooperative purposes and enjoy it. If you and a friend are trying to decide how to spend some leisure time together, the aim is to find something that you both enjoy, and it’s entirely possible that both of you enjoy imagining the same possibilities. You might both, for example, enjoy making a choice between two different concerts to attend. It might be frustrating to be able to only attend one together, but for both, there is anticipatory enjoyment in imagining going to either concert.
If you’re writing poetry or fiction, it’s quite possible that you think of writing something that others will enjoy reading. If you’re writing an academic paper, the same possibility is true: you can write for people who might enjoy or at least appreciate your work. Although it may be that looking back on previous academic efforts, you feel like you’ve only written what others want to hear—a real possibility if you’ve been writing to satisfy professors—that does not preclude the possibility that wha you want to write is something that other people might want to read.
Academic writing is not always a bore
Many scholars struggling to write worry that no one will care about their work. There is always a danger that your work won’t interest others, of course, but those same writers have often been inspired by the work of other scholars. It may be hard to imagine your work inspiring others, but it is possible. In a way, the more you focus on your own ideas, the greater your chance of inspiring someone. If you only pursue ideas that don’t interest you, it’s harder to interest others. Enthusiasm is infectious. Your audience can often tell whether you are enthusiastic, and will follow that lead.
Compromise can be good
Some compromises are bad. Taking an evil job just to make good money is bad compromise (or at least, I think so). And you don’t necessarily want to write about the subject someone else asked you to write about (at least not if you’re an independent scholar seeking publication; it’s a different story with a journalist or other writer under contract to produce material for an employer).
By contrast, it can be a good compromise to write about the subject that interests you in a way that other people will find accessible. Indeed, I would argue that this is the scholarly writer’s ideal. A scholar doing innovative research has ideas and evidence that others (potential readers) do not. This difference between what you know and what your readers know is a gap you’re trying to bridge, and the way to bridge it is by writing about what you want to write about, but doing so in a way that is shaped to reach other people.
As a recent example of this, I was speaking with a writer who, based on a conference presentation, had been invited to contribute to a journal issue. Quite naturally, the writer wanted to pursue their own idea, but the journal issue was focused around the ideas and terminology developed by a different scholar, and the writer personally did not use that terminology. The journal issue editor requested a number of revisions to include more of the terminology used in the issue. The writer felt that this was an unacceptable compromise. I argued that it could be an acceptable compromise if the writer’s main ideas were retained, and the terminology was used only to help explicate those main ideas. The journal issue editor spoke a specific language, and as long as the revisions were viewed as an attempt to present the original ideas in this editor’s language, then it was not a compromise of principles, but rather one of translation. The point was not to change the ideas, but rather to frame them in a way that the editor would understand and appreciate.
Imagine your best possible audience
Some writers know what they want to write, and will write to that end, with no concern for audience whatsoever. If that works for you, then you should stick with it! But if you ever struggle with choosing what to write, or you feel that trying to write to a specific audience, consider as an exercise imagining your best possible audience: readers who are interested in the same subjects as you, and who would also benefit from the ideas that you want to express. You could imagine writing to a friend (one who is interested in your work for its own sake, not just because they’re your friend). What would help you communicate your enthusiasm to them?
Writing for others doesn’t mean you can’t also write for yourself
There may be times when you are required to write something that will please someone else, but even in such circumstances, you can try to imagine how to present your ideas in a way that will reach them. Try to write what you want to write. Use what you know about your audience to help you shape the presentation, but still try to convey your own ideas and voice.
Share your enthusiasm for your own ideas. And also try to acknowledge the ideas and language of the audience to whom you write. You’re not compromising yourself if you’re trying to convince people that you’re right.