As part of my work here -- and, really, just general interest -- I belong to several writers' groups on Facebook. It's a great resource for me; when I was planning out my content for next year I scrolled through posts to find interesting questions to answer or topics to talk about (including this one).
But one thing I also noticed were two types of statements (well, one is technically a question), and they came up frequently. In my opinion, these statements directly contradict each other.
Let me make one point very clear before I move on: There is nothing inherently wrong with either of these two statements. You want to sell books and grow your audience? Fantastic! You want to write simply as an expression of your own creativity and not worry about what others have to say? That's amazing. But, it's going to be very difficult to do both, especially at the same time.
If you are growing your audience, your primary goal in your writing is to know what your audience wants and then to deliver. Of course, it has to still make sense for your story and characters. But, aside from that, it's simple: supply and demand. Learn the demand, and provide the supply. If it makes you happy and fulfilled, that's a bonus. But if your goal is growth, your primary concern is the happiness of your reader.
However, if you are writing only for yourself, your goal is different. Your first priority isn't to grow your audience or sell your books, because you're not writing for anyone else. If you decide to publish or if you don't -- it doesn't matter. Your purpose in writing is your own creativity and expression.
In each writing project, there is a purpose. In some cases this purpose is very clear to us, perhaps we define it ourselves. But, whether or not we realize it right away, this purpose is so important because without it -- or without an understanding of what it is specific to the project in front of us -- we are more likely to become frustrated with the process and our work runs the risk of feeling disingenuous.
Do you always have to write for your audience or always write for yourself? Certainly not. In fact, I think the purpose could change even from project to project. But believing you are writing for yourself and then wondering why your audience isn't going is trying to look at both sides of a coin at the same time.
Like I mentioned earlier, there is nothing wrong with writing for yourself and there is nothing wrong with writing for your audience. Just be honest with yourself about your goals, and then work hard until those goals are achieved.