4 Tips for Writing to the Right Audience

4 Tips for Writing to the Right AudienceHere’s my somewhat radical idea: Writers don’t need to know who their audience is.

And, yes, I know this goes entirely against popular advice, which encourages (even insists) that beginning authors must know their audience. I’ve probably even said basically that somewhere or other on this site.

You’re supposed to go so far as to write up a dossier of your ideal reader, sometimes even complete with a stock photo.

Or at the very least, you’re supposed to think of one person who you know reads your books (your mom, your editor, that one really nice reviewer) and write solely to that person as a representative of your audience.

On the surface, those ideas don’t sound so bad. And yet when writers sit down to try to form an idea of their “ideal audience,” most of us come up blank.

“Um, my audience is, you know–[insert vague gesture]–anybody who likes books like this.”

Helpful, isn’t it?

Here’s the thing though: your “audience” only matters when it comes time to market the book. That whole write-a-dossier-of-your-ideal-reader thing? That’s a copywriting trick—an advertising technique.

Sure, you’re probably writing this book for eventual sale, but, frankly, selling it is the last thing you should be thinking about when you’re writing it. Time enough to figure out who to sell it to once you’ve finished and know what kind of book you’ve got.

Does that mean you should completely forget about an audience while writing? Should you just pretend no one but you is ever going to see this book?

The answer to that is yes. And… no.

Writing for the right audience is incredibly important. But it’s not what you think—partly because finding that audience is actually incredibly easy.

The Problem of Focusing on Writing to the Right Audience

These days, publishing is the wild west. Authors are entirely responsible for carrying their own marketing six-guns. We have to be both artist and businessperson. It’s a tough balance, especially if you’re determined to make a living.

I’m all for business-savvy authors going out there with their amazing books and crushing it. But I am first and always an advocate for the art. You will never hear me tell an author to write to the market. But when an author writes “to an audience” that’s often exactly what’s happening.

“Writing to the right audience” is the first step on the dark road to the kind of soulless disasters Hollywood is churning out right now. It may be a road paved with good intentions (and it is certainly not a road that always leads to soulless disasters), but it is a road that oversteps the most important question of creativity. That question is not “Will this sell and who will buy it?”—but, rather, “What do I want to say and why is this important to me?”

Art is a microcosm of the world. What is important to one artist is, in at least some small measure, always important to the world. Thus: if what is valuable to the artist herself is being overridden by commercial concerns, what is valuable to the world will also be overridden.

And yet… you gotta have an audience, right? And you gotta find it somewhere, right?

Actually, no.

I would argue that you don’t find the right audience; the right audience finds you. I don’t mean that in a marketing sense, because that’s really another topic altogether. What we’re talking about here is writing to the right audience.

Several Short Sentences About Writing Verlyn KlinkenborgIn his beautifully iconoclastic and thought-provoking book Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg offers a great analogy:

Imagine a cellist playing one of Bach’s solo suites. Does he consider his audience? (Did Bach, for that matter?) Does he play the suite differently to audiences of different incomes and educations and social backgrounds? No. The work selects its audience.

Who Is Your Audience?

You don’t need to create a complex dossier of your ideal reader. You don’t need to hunt down the perfect stock photo of what this person might look like. Just go stand in front of the mirror.

You are your perfect audience.

As Toni Morrison famously said:

If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.

As we’ve talked about elsewhere recently, the most important ingredient you bring to your art is yourself. Never lose that in trying to appeal to what you think readers want. This doesn’t mean you aren’t always trying to improve your technique or make your writing as accessible as possible. But it does mean that if you’re not writing something you would kill to read, then you’re probably writing the wrong thing.

This is true on so many levels. Not only should be you be writing to the reader who enjoys the stories, characters, and themes that you do—you should also be writing to a reader who has reached your own level of reading. Don’t write down to readers. Expect them to be as smart as you, as story-savvy as you, as keen about all your favorite weird subjects as you. Sure, there will be readers who aren’t quite there; but in trusting even them, you’re giving them the gift of an opportunity to rise, rather than an excuse to remain complacent. More than that: you’re being honest. Arguably, honesty is one of the single most important components in truly resonant art, of any kind.

If you can do this—if you can write to yourself as the audience—you’ll discover you’re not just writing to yourself. You’re one in a million, remember? That means there are upwards of 10,000 people just like you and a whole lot more whose interests overlap. That’s your audience, baby.

4 Tips for Writing to the Right Audience

Basically, my big bit of advice here is: write for yourself and don’t worry too much about your readers. Not yet anyway. As they say,

The first draft is for the writer; the second draft is for the reader.

Once you realize this, there are a couple steps you can take to optimize this mindset in creating your best possible book. Here are four.

1. Write to Your Audience of One

This is where it all starts. Just write a book you would objectively love to read.

That’s not as simple as it sounds. It can be incredibly easy to write a book, enjoy writing it, and then realize (usually a few years later) that this book is not even close to something you’d like to read but actually even presents characters and themes with which you’re in total disharmony. I know; I’ve done it.

This can happen for two reasons:

1. You’re trying to imitate authors you perceive as successful or especially erudite.

2. You’re unconsciously (or not-so-unconsciously) mimicking trends you’re absorbing in popular media.

This is why it’s important to be rigorously aware of yourself as a person—and, in turn, rigorously honest with yourself as a writer. When I’m in the prep stages of my novels’ outlines, I always try to step back and objectively evaluate the ideas I’m coming up with:

  • Is this theme playing out like this because this is how it always plays out—or because it’s representing something I believe is true?
  • Is this character behaving like this because this is how this type of character is expected to behave—or because it feels honest and true to me?
  • Am I creating this plot because it’s a familiar and successful iteration—or because I am just insanely in love with it?

This goes for the writing itself. Choose words and write sentences that make sense to you and that you feel you would enjoy reading. Don’t limit yourself to your preconceptions of your readers’ skill level. Time enough to make adjustments for any errors in judgement (aka, writing-that-wasn’t-quite-as-brilliant-as-you-though-it-was) when you start getting feedback from confused beta readers.

2. Trust Your Readers as Humans

Writers often end up on two extreme ends of the spectrum: either we just assume readers will get what we’re saying no matter how incomprehensible, or we worry readers won’t get anything we’re trying to say and we just spell it all out.

You know both are mistakes because you know that, as a reader, you would appreciate neither. Your goal is to try to strike the perfect balance of clarity and trust you find in your own favorite authors.

One of the best rules of thumb is simply remembering your readers are humans too. They’re living this life same as you—learning as they go, same as you. The older and more mature they are, the more likely they are to extrapolate your subtext, and, thus, the less likely they will need every little nuance spelled out. Klinkenborg reminds:

It helps to remember that your prose is going to be read against two different backdrops: What the reader knows about reading and what the reader knows about life. It’s surprising how many writers forget the life part.

3. Trust Your Readers as Readers

Last week, we talked about reading as a learned skill and how readers are at different levels depending on their depth of experience. The primary reason it’s so important for writers to be experienced readers is because they cannot write books that surpass their own reading skills.

It is not possible for a writer to write a book better than those he is able to understand and appreciate as a reader (although it is certainly possible to read and enjoy books of a higher level than our current writing skill set).

Because you are trying to write the kind of book you would enjoy reading, it is important not to write a book that is less complex and trusting of the reader than the books you read. Write bravely. Write with all the intelligence and audacity you can muster. Dare much and throw it all out there on the page.

Your beta readers, critique partners, and editors exist to tell you when you’ve missed the mark—when your complexity is really just obtuse, or your trust of readers to “get it” is really just a plot hole. But save all that for the second draft. When you’re initially writing this story, write it for yourself, knowing you will totally get it.

Readers appreciate books that trust them. It allows them to enter the imaginative experience as a co-writer and the thematic experience as a peer of equal frankness and insight with the author. Trusting your readers starts with trusting yourself as a writer.

4. Write Rigorously-Imagined Literature

Light the dark BookOne of the reasons reading fiction is a learned skill is that there are often certain genre conventions that are not immediately intuitive to new readers. Often—as in science fiction, fantasy, and historical novels, among others—the writer must simply trust the reader to get aspects of the form without taking the time to spell it out. In Light the Dark, William Gibson explained from the vantage of high-concept science fiction:

Sophisticated science fiction requires a sort of cultural superstructure of reading skill. We forget as readers of longform fiction that at one time we didn’t know how to do that—we had to acquire the skill through cultural education. It’s the same with good sci-fi, which generally requires a sort of superstructure of culture experience to make it pleasurably accessible. As a reader, I want to encounter rigorously imagined literature….

Yes, this inevitably means you’re going to lose some readers. But if you lose them over something like this, then they weren’t your readers anyway, were they?

“Rigorously-imagined literature” encompasses a thorough, detailed understanding of your story’s inner workings—its theme, plot, character arcs, setting (both physical and historical), language, and details. Writing something deeply complex and asking readers to figure it out is totally different from writing something blurry and vague and asking readers to fill in the blanks.

This takes work. It takes discipline. It requires logic as well as creativity. Historian David McCullough nailed it when he said:

Writing is thinking clearly. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.

But if that is what you expect from your own favorite authors, seems only fair to expect it from yourself as well, right?

***

“Writing to the right audience” is about nothing more or less than the same old directive to write the best book you possibly can by first having a clear understanding of what you’re writing and why. The answers to both those questions come from deep within yourself.

If you can gain a clear understanding of what you enjoy as a reader and why you enjoy it (as well as what turns you off and why), you will have taken huge steps toward writing the kind of book that will appeal to your ideal audience of rabid fans.

Let me leave you with one last challenge from Klinkenborg:

Say more than you thought you knew how to say in sentences better than you ever imagined for the reader who reads between the lines.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is your mindset when figuring out how you should be writing for the right audience? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. “If you’re not writing something you would kill to read, then you’re probably writing the wrong thing.”

    Great quote–I posted it to my Great Quotes on Writing collection.

    I’m a new writer, age 55, and whenever I think: “Would the average millennial teen enjoy what I’m writing now?” my creative gears start crunching and grinding. When I feel like the good stuff is really flowing is when I go back to my twelve-year old self, ducking into a cafe out of the rain after my paper-route, pulling out a paperback adventure novel, and being transported to another world.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s the great thing about stories–they let us tap the parts of ourselves we don’t always get to use in everyday life.

  2. Nice post, as I was just thinking about something similar (my wife’s youtube channel and finding the target audience.) But for my writing as well, my short stories are all for the general adult sci-fi/fantasy/horror audience, but my novel is YA.

    It’s hard to write for that age group, and even harder to market to them when you’re a 41-year-old guy who feels like he’s writing for other 41-year-old guys. Ha.

    Anyhow, like always, thanks for the great advice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think most of us are writing for a specific *part* of ourselves (our inner child, etc.). So there’s nothing wrong or impossible about tapping that one specific part of our own understanding or experience and writing to that.

  3. Just what I needed at the moment! 🙂 I haven been reading too much of the “keep your audience in mind” advice lately … Made me feel insecure. But this gave me a boost again. Thank you!

  4. I’m glad you shared that the first draft is for the writer. I don’t think I could write for anyone else, although I try to do that on my blog. But come to think of it, did Dostoevsky write Crime and Punishment for a mom in the Arkansas outback? Nope. And I think he wrote it because he had this horror, this terror, stuffed inside him and he had to get it out.
    And that’s what I do.

  5. This post really speaks to me right now. Transitioning from creative nonfiction to fiction has been a bit of a struggle. And I’ve always followed the “identify your audience” pro forma complete with snapshot. I’m writing, or attempting to write, a historical novel based on my father’s entry into the life of an orphan at age 4 in 1905. I’m enjoying the research I’m doing on the period, i.e. clothing, education, work for widowed women, orphanages and conditions of same, etc. However, when I sit down to write, I’m stymied because I keep thinking about who is going to read this. If I am truthful, this is a book I’ve always wanted to write and so I suppose I should write it for me, at least during the first draft. After all, Toni Morrison knows best!

Trackbacks

  1. […] https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/writing-to-the-right-audience/ “Here’s the thing though: your “audience” only matters when it comes time to market the book. That whole write-a-dossier-of-your-ideal-reader thing? That’s a copywritingtrick—an advertising technique.” I’ve often struggled with this. I know that I want readers who like my type of genre but actually picturing the ideal reader? It’s hard to do. Weiland suggests “you” are the reader. I agree with her. You write the book for you then market it to others like you. […]

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