Write for Narcissists

Every reader is a narcissist.

Hold on, there. Don’t get all mad and sassy yet. Let me explain

I often tell developing writers, “No one reads about other people; we read only about ourselves.” Go ahead and quote me, just be sure to give me credit and send me the royalties it produces.

Seriously, I think it’s true. For example, I read several memoirs every year. And many of them are about writers or  people who, say, quit their high-paying jobs in Manhattan and built a cabin deep in the Maine woods where they lived off the land and learned to speak to wolves and bears. Why do I read those kinds of memoirs over and over again? Because that’s what I am or want to do. Those books are primarily about me, not about the author.

Every reader who scans a bookstore shelf or a book-selling website is asking (if subconsciously), “What’s in it for me?” It’s not about the author’s agenda, but the reader’s needs. And any writer who doesn’t connect with the reader’s self-interest, implicitly or explicitly, is unlikely to publish and sell.

I met with a developing writer recently who said she wanted, in her book, to convince readers of their need for her message.

“Nope,” I said.


“Nope. Won’t work.”

“What won’t work?”

“Your reader hasn’t yet bought your book, let alone read it.”

“Yes, I know,” she said.

“So you can’t write a book to convince your reader that she needs your book.”

You’d have thought a daffodil had just sprouted out of the top of my head. She blinked. She shook her head. She asked me to repeat what I’d just said.

“You can’t write a book to convince your reader that she needs your book.”

I saw understanding slowly register in her expression. Then disappointment. “So,” she said, “I can’t help my reader see the need for my book.”

“No. You have to figure out what need the reader already feels. You can’t accomplish your agenda; you have to discover the reader’s agenda, and maybe look for an intersection of her need and your message.”

She leaned back in her chair. “But that—that’s going to change everything.”

I smiled. “Exactly.”


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