Or should I dumb down my writing and pander to what I think most people like to read?

(Note: This isn't necessarily about me. It's a general question for many writers facing such a dilemma.)

NB: I have been urged to expatiate in order to make the question more understandable. So let me give this small example:

Suppose you are a writer whose works (which are mostly in the genre of literary magical realism) have not (yet) gotten much readership/sales. But you notice lately - and someone else confirms to you - that YA fiction geared towards teenage girls is very trendy and popular, and many writers do very well even in spite of rather low quality writing. You are tempted to, at least for the time being, venture into that genre and use your skill to start writing to pander to teenage girls despite really having no interest in YA or romance.

Is it advisable to do so? Can one be successful doing so despite not really having much interest in it?

That is a very specific (and maybe a little extreme) example, but i hope it clarifies the point.

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    What's so smart about your writing? What do you think people want instead? Edit the answer into your question.
    – J.G.
    Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 6:54
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    My comment was meant to help you improve your question so you're more likely to get a helpful answer.
    – J.G.
    Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 7:56
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    Apologies for the misunderstanding.
    – user394536
    Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 9:52
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    Maybe if your writing is so eloquent and maybe if you are so smart, then perhaps you can fake your way into writing what most people like to read, should success truly be what you're after.
    – BenjaminF
    Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 20:48

7 Answers 7


Edit: since I posted this answer, the OP has expanded their question to state the interest is in whether one should dumb down in the choice of genre. That is not what I expected herein. I hope what appears below will be of use to future readers interested in the more general question implied in the title. I also think it's relevant, in general logic if not in examples discussed, to the genre issue now raised.

Should I be myself?


The only alternative is trying to write like someone else, and you'd fail, not because they're better but because they're different. Never mind the specific things authors get praise for, either as individuals or in the aggregate; you can't even mimic the pattern of their vocabulary. Ben Blatt has shown authors each have their own vocabulary fingerprint, which is why Nabokov overused "mauve" so much.

Besides, what does any reader or viewer want from the fiction they consume? They want something they've never encountered.

Should I write what I really want?

Yes and no.

On the one hand, it has to be something you can bring yourself to write. If you hate it, what makes you think anyone else will like it? On the other hand, we all have to make compromises. Any number of authors have admitted to liking their most popular work a lot less than the public does. Sometimes they write something for money. That's where A Christmas Carol came from. The real question isn't what you want and what everyone else wants, and which of the two you should go with; both are surprisingly flexible. The question is what can you bring that other people don't?

Even though it isn't getting much traction?

Of course it isn't.

There's no way to write, none at all, that gives you a good chance of getting traction. No-one has the secret to being conventionally published, or to being a bestseller. That's not to say there aren't things you should avoid doing because they'll make your chances even worse. Writing guides are full of time-tested observations we ignore at our peril. (We can break a few "rules", but we need to know what we're getting ourselves into; that's what all the best writers have done.) But if you're going to make changes to gain more traction, they need to be things you can do well enough it doesn't backfire, despite styming what makes you you. I'm sorry that's not very specific, but it can't be. Every writer has to figure out for themselves what about them can change.

Should I dumb down my writing?

That depends what's "smart" about it; ask your beta readers.

  • Maybe you speak like a thesaurus; don't do that. (Well, you might be able to make it work for one character, but not your narration.) If your writing is "eloquent" in some other sense, it's probably in the good sense of using your vocabulary well, not in the most abstruse way you can. What I mean is your words need to flow the right way; have the right show-don't-tell effects; move the reader the way you want, etc.
    • Related to that point, maybe your writing is hard to read because of its grammar or syntax, rather than the words themselves. (Again, this gets into eloquence; so does the point below.) In my experience, readers have objected to my work at times for all these reasons. It's definitely something one has to fix. What I found helpful was to review every sentence over 25 words for how, if at all, it can be improved. Maybe it should be split; maybe it needs to lose words that don't do anything; maybe it shouldn't be there at all. It varies, but you learn a lot from considering them.
  • Maybe your prose is purple; if so, that might be fine, because on the one hand it can be too purple but on the other hand it can be too beige.
  • Maybe you try to make your story do what your teacher said fiction does, to have a polemical message. If you really want to do that, that's fine, but do it right. The best examples don't have a character tell us the right view; they have a character go on the kind of experiential journey that would make a person feel that way.
  • Or maybe the smarts are in your imaginativeness. That's probably the least dangerous kind of smart your writing can have. People want to see something new. That's not to say the most imaginative plot or character or setting you can invent will be popular with other people. It's hit and miss. All writing is hit and miss.

Should I pander to what I think most people like to read?

That's up to you.

What do you think they like to read? Or watch; remember, scriptwriters are authors too. I'd hate it if we ended up in a world where every new film is, "Supervillains 911 a city, then superheroes punch them into defeat." Especially if both sides do it with coloured CGI energy balls. Is it popular? Sure, but we need diverse stories. Luckily, I think we'll keep getting them from every medium, because every writer is better- or worse-suited to this and that niche, and we're all different. I can't tell you what you're best off writing; in fact, you can't even do that at first. You'll have to write a good few stories before you know what you're good at. But I suspect one day you'll find you can write all sorts of things well, as long as you feel the urge to write something like that.


Do you think teenage girls are too stupid to know when they're being pandered to?

Do you think publishers of young adult fiction would not notice that an author is not familiar with the genre and looks down on it?

If you are familiar with more than one genre and good at it then, sure, you might want to focus your attention on writing a book in the genre more likely to sell well, even if it's not your first choice. That could give you enough cache to publish the books you prefer to write later on.

As someone who is actually writing a young adult (middle-grade) novel employing magical realism and lots of strong female characters because I want to and love the genre, your question makes my skin crawl.

Write what makes you happy. Write what you can do well. Make choices to increase the likelihood of being published or to increase sales after publications but stay within the works you can do well and enjoy.


(from comments) my writing is incredibly smart, both in terms of eloquence and imagination


How many female lead characters do you have? Do your female characters have agency and pursue their own life goals? Are the economics of your female characters given the same level of "realism" as your magic system?

Do your female characters have female friends?

Can your stories pass the Bechdel Test, or better: the Delany Test?

Most book readers are women

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source: http://authornews.penguinrandomhouse.com/trends-in-consumer-book-buying-infographic/

Hard statistics on book sales by age and gender aren't as easy to find as I expected. Most "data" is self-reported, and the research tends to be skewed depending on who re-prints it. Writers are focused on genre and book classification (romance, non-fiction, etc), while publishers are focused on format (print vs e-books, etc).

Most of what I could find was anecdotal, or journalists reported on research without re-printing the actual data (which is proprietary and costs money). Nevertheless, it's universally reported that women read and buy more books than men do.

Why Women Read More Than Men Who buys books? 40-year-old women...

Where I found "respectable research" that I could see the actual data set, further digging revealed the test sample was very small. Pew Research conducts a study every few years (skewed for books vs e-readers) but a 2016 survey was only ~1500 people. Compare that to over 1.2 million US comicbook readers responding on Facebook (spoiler: 3/4 comicbook readers are men). Again, it's difficult to check the conclusions when journalists don't share the original research data.

If women don't enjoy your writing, kiss 60% of the book-buying market good-bye

Draw your own conclusions. Women buy and read more books because other mainstream media tends to ignore them. Or maybe men prefer visual entertainment and adrenaline-boosters over reading and thinking. Maybe white men who have the most spending power just don't like identifying with other people and it's holding them back in genres that are about new frontiers and fresh ideas.

YA fiction geared towards teenage girls is very trendy and popular, and many writers do very well even in spite of rather low quality writing. You are tempted to, at least for the time being, venture into that genre and use your skill to start writing to pander to teenage girls despite really having no interest in YA or romance.

You sound very dismissive of "teenage girls". To include something that interested them you would be forced to "pander" and stifle your "eloquence and imagination". I'm going to give you the benefit of interpreting your question as facetious, and you don't actually believe you can "bad-write" your way to success.

Arguably there is a cause/effect fallacy here. There are no publishing houses run by teenage girls. Publishers are pursuing a demographic that is largely ignored by mainstream movies, mainstream comics, mainstream sports, and mainstream gaming – all of which are a smorgasbord of crappy fantasies for the lowest common denominator male ego. It's silly to pretend that idiot-savants are monkey-typing "popular YA books" without major advertising campaigns and corporate influencers signing the checks. If you do any pandering it would be to publishers, and they seem to pander to the majority demographic that actually pays for books.

You could buck the trend and be hailed as a genius

There are outliers of course. Harry Potter is a YA fantasy series that features a boy, and it actually got more boys to read even though the hero is hardly a manly archetype and his best friend is an over-powered "teenage girl" SJW who can do no wrong.

Black Panther and Wonder Woman made bank repackaging the same old clichés to a demographic that is usually ignored in actionhero movies. These are "exceptions that prove the rule": they play the same tired formula but feature a long-missing protagonist. After both made so much money it's bizarre they have no sequels (yet we have AntMan 2) – it's almost like market forces and audience enthusiasm don't actually decide what stories get funded, instead some corporate bros throw money at projects about dudes they relate to.

It could be argued these outliers are so successful because they speak to a demographic frustrated by being ignored for so long – kind of like the YA "teen girl" conspiracy.

The Reader as "Mary Sue"

Please understand that I relate to your question. We all navigate between cliché and originality, personal and public, ego and id. All of life's decisions are about what to preserve and what to change.

To be honest, teen girl shooting patriarchy in the face with a crossbow sounds just as dumb as magic superpowered ninja druids with laser swords. I understand why people enjoy these dorky fantasies, they "Mary Sue" themselves as the hero so they become the most special/important person saving the galaxy. I agree, it's like pandering to mental children.

I'm not writing mindless Reader-as-Mary-Sue fantasies (that actually sounds profitable, so maybe I should rethink my life goals) but, admittedly, I re-arranged action scenes and added a sapho-erotic angle that wasn't there. I worry that not enough scenes take place in outerspace. I added character flaws just to be polarizing and controversial – among countless other "commercial" decisions. Is it still pandering if you don't flatter the reader with their dumb version of a Mary Sue? And yes, I had to edit out (most of) my author-as-Mary-Sue moments. I'd rather pander to fridge logic post-analysis than serve candy-coated bonbons to morons. Like you, I have considered selling out. If only success was guaranteed, this would be a no-brainer.

If you don't like the demographic that actually buys books, you could try appealing to another outlier group that is largely ignored and hope to hit an unlikely jackpot. These pendulums tend to swing hard after being unnaturally forced in one direction too long. If you write an alternative to the squint-y male power-fantasy medieval Europe with magic and dragons cliché you might win 3 Hugo Awards in a row. Then again, if you make it extremely bad with gratuitous rape scenes you might sell it to HBO – an even bigger jackpot! Ka-CHING!

Or that might be pandering.


Write for yourself, and you'll only pander to an audience of one.


If I simplify this a bit into a binary choice I think things might become clearer. The choice is, write what I love or write what I think sells (but maybe I hate). There are two outcomes - get paid a satisfactory amount or don't get paid a satisfactory amount (or at all).

If you write what you love, no matter the outcome, you have something you love. Quite likely, a work you can be proud of. If you get paid, you have a work you are proud of and money but if you do not get paid, you still have the work.

If you write something you are not so proud of but for which there is a chance of more money, either you get paid or you don't. Either way, you are unlikely to have anything you will feel confident about boasting about. If you don't get paid, not only do you not have money, you don't have a work you love either.

One choice, four possible outcomes - half of which you have very little control over.

Niel Gaiman gave a talk about writing purely for the money. He did not get paid because the company went bust. This is his take on the matter.

My first book – a piece of journalism I had done for the money, and which had already bought me an electric typewriter from the advance – should have been a bestseller. It should have paid me a lot of money. If the publisher hadn't gone into involuntary liquidation between the first print run selling out and the second printing, and before any royalties could be paid, it would have done.

And I shrugged, and I still had my electric typewriter and enough money to pay the rent for a couple of months, and I decided that I would do my best in future not to write books just for the money. If you didn't get the money, then you didn't have anything. If I did work I was proud of, and I didn't get the money, at least I'd have the work.

--Niel Gaiman

For you, or any writer, the answer is - are you writing for the love of writing or as a job? If you love writing, write what you love. If it is just a job, do whatever pays.

I would advise anyone to make good art. Make the best art you can. After all, if you just want money, writing is probably not for you.

Given I have already quoted from the best speech ever, here is the TL;DR from that speech.

If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that.

--Niel Gaiman


Should I be myself and write what I really want, even though it isn't getting much traction?

Change what you really want!

If writing only for yourself pleases you or is cathartic or mentally soothing, then write for yourself.

However, if you wish to be an author that sells books, you need to change yourself to somebody that realizes people buy writing because they find it entertaining, so you need to find something that you enjoy that is also entertaining to others.

For background; I am a professor, and I consider teachers to be changing minds, and I consider education (for myself) to be changing my mind. Both, literally speaking, learning establishes new neural pathways and new understandings and even changes neurons and physically encodes memories. If a professor of mine did their job, then the brain I walked out of their class with, at the end of the semester, is physically different (and better) than the brain I walked into their class with on the first day of the semester.

So when I say "change yourself" and "change what you really want" I mean literally, educate yourself enough to understand what people like to read, and what kind of writing they like. Then, apply your intellect and creativity toward making something fun for YOU to write and simultaneously fun for THEM to read. That is a pretty straightforward problem, and it doesn't take a genius-level IQ to solve it.

This is the entertainment business, and if what you write is only entertaining to YOU, then you are into a hobby, not a business.

Teach yourself to write at a fifth or sixth grade level; or more generally, simply and using words you think an average 11 year old would understand. If you write for adults with curse words, you can add sexual understandings to the mix without exceeding the reading level. If you have a pretentious character, you can use words the average person wouldn't get, but always use them in places where a failure to understand a word by the reader will not impair their entertainment. (e.g. another character could explain the word, or request clarification; "WTF Jerry? Do you want a sandwich or not?"

Don't think that this is "dumbing down" your story, explaining things in simple language does not mean your story is dumb, or your plot is simple, or your characters are stupid. Writing with 99.9% words the audience instantly understands increases and sustains the reverie of reading. Using a word they don't understand or aren't sure of will interrupt that reverie, and break the entertainment. Do it often enough and they give up on the reading, because they don't think the author is a good writer, they think the writing is pretentious and intentionally opaque.

Writing fiction is an exercise in assisting the imagination of the reader, providing the creativity and imagery they need. If you are the only reader, use the words and imagery that resonates with you. If you don't want to BE the only reader, then write to entertain others, and let your ideas and imagination sell the story, don't rely on fancy words and complex sentence structures and obscure allusions.

Don't write for teen girls if you can't think of a story for them that you personally find entertaining and compelling. Only write something you believe can be a great story. But re-educate yourself so that you can believe that "a great story" can be written at a fifth grade reading level. Even if read by adults.

The site lexile will analyze up to 1000 words of text for free, and give you a "level" score. (you have to register, but it is free.) They also can show you a score for the entirety of existing books by title or all the books for an author; JK Rowling and Dan Brown books tend to score in the 880 range, Stephen King has several books at that level, with a few scoring higher.

I have to think the bestsellers are telling great and compelling stories, in relatively simple language that most readers buying fiction can understand. If you want to be in the business, do what they do: Write great stories in simple language.


I like to compare writing to other jobs:

  • Chef in a Restaurant: Should you serve your customers what they like to eat, or should you cook what you like and eat it yourself?

  • Architect: Should you build the house that the owner wants to live in, or the house that you want to live in?

Ideally, your personal taste coincides with the taste of a large enough market segment for you to make a living. Artists (and cooks and architects) who like what the masses like can become rich and famous.

But usually when someone asks this question, they have found that what they enjoy is at worst unpublishable and at best a small niche and won't pay enough for them to do it full time.

It is a basic fact of live that most people will have to spend most of their working lives doing things they wouldn't do if they had the choice. In this, a writing career is no different than a career as an accountant or carpenter. You can choose a job that comes as close as possible to what you like to do, but you will always have to work on things you don't enjoy.

So what you can do is either:

1. Work a job you dislike and write what you like as a hobby.

2. Write what sells.

There is a third option, but this requires extreme networking and marketing skills, above average good looks, an outgoing, likeable personality, and probably a good portion of luck:

  1. Write what you like and sell it.

Of course you should be yourself. Who else would you be?

I never really liked YA books even when I was a kid. I preferred books for adults that would challenge my mind and improve my vocabulary. Our school turned us loose in the library as soon as we could read, but tried to restrict us to the children’s section. Stories about young detectives who were the only smart people in town never appealed to me.

I have a passion for the written word and once I negotiated an exemption and was allowed to borrow any book in the library, I was set. I love literature and what bothered me about YA was it treated me like a kid.

Reading the greats was part of my education and I became that kid who would ask their English teacher if they had read War and Peace - my response to their reply would be my count at the time. I love that novel.

My writing is, like so much else, coloured by what I have read over the years. I was told my poetry sounded a little like Donne - thank you, I will take that.

My background is that of avid reader, English major with Philosophy minor and former literacy tutor.

My current work began with an awareness that one friend of mine whose reading is at a grade eight level would have difficulty reading parts of it, so I used simpler language. I was not satisfied with that and knew that I must write as I want to write, make my characters my own and interesting and let them speak as they will - even waxing poetic. My characters are well educated and well read so have a good vocabulary.

Sometimes I let my diction go slightly obscure, but the context is always there. Somewhere, there might be a kid like I was who wants more than what the YA books offer and consider themselves intellectually adults - as did I.

Deliberately choosing to write in a genre because it sells is something I would never do. A cousin of mine suggested I write romance novels since they sell - never liked them either. I can’t write well if I do not like what I am writing.

Pandering to an audience will never gain long term success as readers are astute enough to know when the author is not being genuine.

If my novel ever sells,I hope people will think it both interesting and well written - maybe even scintillating. If it doesn’t, I am still proud of every word of it.


As now posed, it is a question with as many answers as people in that situation.

I say no, it is never advisable, but it might be necessary. Writing is an art as well as a craft and as such, many like to keep their art pure and have a day job that can feed their writing and introduce them to people they find intriguing who might appear in their next work.

That said, there is a word for those who are forced to give up aspirations of greatness in exchange for paying the bills with subpar works - hacks.

I admire the work of Rod Serling and Edward R Murrow. These legends made compromises. For each of Murrow’s fantastic in depth special reports he paid the price of interviewing celebrities. He did both of these well, but one he was passionate about, so did supremely well and the other, while not phoned it, are inferior.

Serling was proud of Twilight Zone but not the more commercially successful Night Gallery.

My point, great talents made compromises but their greatest works, for which they are remembered, were matters of passion.

Write what you love and you might write a great book, write what you care naught for and you require genius to be adequate.

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