Ever since I wrote my first book, The Color of Compromise, a steady trickle of people have approached me to get tips about writing.
The questions come in many forms–what to write about, how to find an agent, how to get published in a periodical, or how to get a book contract. Regardless of the specifics, a general question applies to every writer for every piece of written content.
Who is your audience?
I was recently reading a book called Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art, and Spirituality by Andrew T. Le Pau. In it he includes a short chapter on “Knowing Your Audience.” In fact, it’s the second chapter of the book which indicates how foundational this question about audience is to the writer.
Andrew explains that when people hand him a book manuscript he has one chief diagnostic question. “Almost anything and everything an author has to say flows from the answer,” he writes.
“This is the question: Who is your audience?”
While many people insist that they are writing for “everyone” or “anyone” this is, in fact, an unhelpful approach to answering the audience question. You can’t write with everyone’s unique questions, social location, experience, and concerns in mind. You have to narrow your audience.
This is what makes Le Pau’s guidance so helpful. He forces writers to get specific about their audience.
“When thinking about our audience, we should try to be as specific as possible–age range, economic status, religious background, ethnicity, geographic location, life experiences, and so forth. In fact, I encourage writers to pick out one person they know that they would love to have read their work. Then write for that one person.”Andrew T. Le Pau, Write Better
I like to imagine sitting down across from someone at my desk or a coffee shop and having a conversation with them about the content of whatever I’m writing. In a conversation there is back-and-forth speech, there are facial expressions, hand gestures, objections, and questions.
If I can imagine the contours of that conversation, including the particular person I want to talk to, then I can craft a message tailored for the occasion. This level of specificity, perhaps counterintuitively, lends itself to universality. When you clearly define your audience, you will not simply speak to a single person but to a whole class of people who share similar characteristics and viewpoints.
Ultimately, knowing your audience helps you make better decisions as a writer. Amid the countless combinations of words you can put on a page, how do you know what is most effective? How do you know what vocabulary to use? Which points do you emphasize and which ones do you just briefly touch on? What stories and illustrations pull out the strongest emotions from the reader? How do you want someone’s actions or thinking to change as a result of what you’ve shared?
None of these questions find an adequate response unless you know who your audience is, and, at least for some parts of the writing process, you are as specific as possible.
There will come a time, maybe when you’re marketing your work, that you may need more general descriptions of your audience. Perhaps you will have a primary, secondary, and tertiary audience.
But as you start writing ask: Who is that one person you’d love to have read your work?
Let them be your audience and let your writing be your half of the conversation with them. Know your audience.