In composition classes, college students learn to identify their audience—who are they writing for?
On the topic of audience, The Writing Center at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suggests students think about writing a letter to their grandmothers about their first month at college. Then they say to imagine writing another letter on the same topic, but this time to their best friend.
“Unless you have an extremely cool grandma to whom you’re very close, it’s likely that your two letters would look quite different in terms of content, structure, and even tone.”1
The writing form was the same—a letter.
And the topic was the same—the first month in college.
The only variable was the audience—the reader. And knowing the reader will affect the writer’s choices.
Discover Your Ideal Reader for a Writing Project
In this Write to Discover series, we’ve explored our top themes and topics and seen that they can be conveyed in a variety of packages—that is, various genres, styles, or forms. As we add in this new element—the reader—we must ask:
- Who will be reading this piece?
- What does he already know about this topic?
- Will this reader have certain expectations based on the type of writing, such as a genre with its conventions?
As we dig into the reader’s demographics and experiences, our examples and language as writers will shift; our choices will narrow.
For example, an essay on recycling written for The Atlantic will be read by a different audience than a children’s book about recycling or an article in a women’s magazine about recycling. We’ll make different choices to suit our reader in order to produce the best possible project.
For any given writing project, you have to know your audience.
“I never think of an audience”
But you may be resisting this basic writing advice. Perhaps you side with writers like Diane Ackerman, who said in an interview:
Actually, I never think of an audience when I’m writing. I just try to write about what fascinates me and to contemplate what disturbs me or provokes me in some way, or amazes me. I suppose if I have a philosophy on this it’s that if you set out to nourish your own curiosity and your own intellectual yearnings and use yourself as an object of investigation, then, without meaning to, you will probably be touching the lives of a lot of people.2
With this philosophy, Diane Ackerman’s audience would be comprised of, well, people sort of like Diane Ackerman. So while she says she never thinks of an audience but instead simply writes what disturbs, provokes, or amazes her, she’s actually writing for an audience demographic that’s close to her own.
And it’s worked well for her. She’s a prolific, successful author of many books, poems, and essays. Even if you resist this idea of an ideal reader, even if you’re simply writing what pleases you, you are indeed writing for a certain kind of reader—a reader with characteristics similar to yours.
Writing Is a Business with a Customer: the Reader
Lee Gutkind, in his book Creative Nonfiction, seeks a balance between writing what you enjoy and keeping the reader in mind:
[W]riting…is a business. The reader…is a customer. When you write, you are attempting to create a product that your reader wants to buy—or read.
Don’t get me wrong. You must like what you write—and be proud of it. Your article or essay has your name under the title and contains your thoughts and ideas. You are the creator, the person responsible for its existence. But never forget the ultimate reason you are writing nonfiction—to inform, entertain, and influence the readership, however extensive (as in The New Yorker) or limited (as in your school newspaper) it may be.
Yes, writing is a selfish art. We write because we want to write. But we also write because we need to make contact with as many other people—readers—as possible and make an impact in order to influence their thoughts and actions.3
Who’s Your Current Reader?
In our desire to make contact with as many readers as possible to “make an impact” and “influence their thoughts and actions,” let’s look at your current reader.
If you’re already writing—you’re a published author or you’re a blogger seeing a fair amount of traffic or you’re a poet whose work has appeared in literary journals—you may already have a following.
- Who’s already reading and responding to your work?
- How would you describe the people who comprise your current audience?
- Do you know one of your readers personally—enough to write a description of him or her?
These people are your VIP members. They’re the people who make time for you in their inbox if you send out a newsletter. They pause on your social media update to read the latest. They click through to read articles you’ve published. They pre-order your forthcoming book.
Understand your existing readers and seek to know them. Write a profile about them to capture who they are and what matters to them. Hopefully, most of them represent the ideal reader you want to reach.
Ideal Reader Profile
But it’s possible your first followers grew from a mixture of old high school friends and extended family who enjoyed seeing your early writing efforts. So you may want to write to discover your ideal reader beyond your existing base of subscribers and followers.
Darren Rowse of Problogger fame has encouraged bloggers to create reader avatars, which he says are also called reader profiles or personas.4 Sales and marketing teams do the same thing, breaking down their ideal customer profile using demographics and psychographics.
Darren recommends taking the time to develop an ideal reader profile to avoid chasing after numbers. Instead, engage ideal readers. You’ll stop trying to be all things to all people when you have an ideal reader you’re trying to reach.
Because those random people you entice to your website or social media channel in an appeal to the masses and in hopes of raising your numbers?
Well, they may not stick around, because what you’re writing is irrelevant to them.
Plus, you’re at risk of writing bland copy, lacking energy because you really don’t know the person reading your words.
Now compare that with those readers you draw because you’re reaching out to an ideal reader. They’ll stick around. Why? Because it’s clear you understand their struggles, questions, and problems.
You’ve discovered them by writing and delivering content that seems customized to them. You know the entertainment they crave and can deliver it.
Start First with Ten
Years ago Seth Godin wrote a short piece on his website titled “First, Ten.” In it, he recommended anyone in marketing find ten people who need or want what you offer. As writers, we’d be looking for ten readers who, in Seth’s words, “trust you/respect you/need you/listen to you.”5
Write something and see how your first ten respond. Do they love it? Do they share it with their own ten friends or followers? Do they comment on it? Email you about it?
Good. It’s working. Your ideas are spreading. Your writing is, at least on a small scale, validated.
Write more in that vein.
Now, did those ten readers fall silent after you clicked publish? Did they ignore it?
Well, now you know. You wrote to discover what your ideal reader would respond to and apparently that wasn’t it.
Try something else, something different, something new. If those readers are still with you, test their reaction to your next offering. And so on. It’s a simple approach to figure out what to write next and how to connect with your first ten readers.
And it’s a simple approach to find and keep ideal readers. After all, new readers will join you when one of your original ten shares your pieces. Your growing tribe of ideal readers will stick around as you deliver what they need and want.
Go to Your Readers and Write to Them There
While it’s fun to publish at your own website or on social media channels, you’re not restricted to what you can write and publish in your own spaces. Don’t forget you can reach out to places where you think your ideal readers hang out: their favorite social media channels and websites they frequent.
Once you find those places, you can pitch article and guest post ideas so that you write to discover readers on the very channels and websites they frequent. You’ll show up in the magazines they read.
Back in the early blogging days people recommended leaving comments at influential websites. Why not try it now? That’s another way to write to discover your ideal readers: in that flow of interaction responding to someone’s ideas.
Plus, in your well-written comment you get to thank and support the original writer whose work complements your own. It makes this literary world a better place.
Also, be sure you’re creating a fascinating website of your own that appeals to this ideal reader. It’s your home base. When a curious reader discovers you somewhere, he is going to hop over to learn more about you. Be sure more ideal content awaits them so they confirm you’re a writer who relates to them.
And consistently serve them. When you consistently serve people who are gaining value from your writing, who “get you” because you “get them,” you’re developing a loyal audience who will show up to read what you’ve written time and again.
Writing Is Selfish and Writing Serves
By encouraging us to serve readers, I’m not necessarily recommending we write to market, or write for the commercial market…unless you want to. It can be fun and rewarding to write to market—that is, to figure out the top performing genres and subgenres and learn to write novels that fit well in that market. But that’s for another topic some other time.
My point is that you don’t need to write exclusively to please others. Whatever writing you undertake, it needs to be something you enjoy doing—something you’re eager to work on, even if it’s hard. As Lee Gutkind says, “Yes, writing is a selfish act. We write because we want to write.”6
But he points out that we also write to serve an audience—readers—and we hope to reach as many as possible…to make a difference in their lives.
Otherwise we’d just write in a journal and at the end of the day, shove it under the mattress for safekeeping.
No, we are writers, seeking to discover and serve our ideal readers.
Maybe it does just start with ten. First, ten. If you can discover and serve ten ideal readers? Well, frankly, that sounds like a great place to start.
- Ep 79: Your Writing Platform – Who Is Your Who?
- Problogger’s “How to Create a Reader Avatar for Your Blog” (step-by-step guide)
- Seth Godin’s short article “First, ten“
- Ep 180: Write to Discover – Start with Yourself
- Ep 181: Write to Discover the Courage You Need to Confront Your Fears
- Ep 182: Write to Discover Your Reason for Writing
- Ep 183: Write to Discover Your Top Themes & Topics
- Ep 155: In a World of Author Branding…uh, What’s an Author Brand?
- Write to Discover series
- All podcast episodes
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- The Writing Center | University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/audience/.
- “A Conversation with Diane Ackerman,” by Kathleen Veslany, on page 158 of the book by Lee Gutkind, Creative Nonfiction: How to Live It and Write It. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review, 1996. Print.
- Gutkind, Lee. Creative Nonfiction: How to Live It and Write It. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review, 1996. Print, pages 51-52.
- Rowse, Darren. “How to Create a Reader Avatar for Your Blog.” ProBlogger, 17 Oct. 2017, problogger.com/how-to-create-a-reader-avatar-for-your-blog/.
- Godin, Seth. April 2, 2009. “First, Ten.” Seth’s Blog, 1 June 2018, seths.blog/2009/04/first-ten/.
- Gutkind, Lee. Creative Nonfiction: How to Live It and Write It. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review, 1996. Print, pages 51-52. (emphasis mine)