What I Mean By “Consider Your Audience”
I remember when I first had to learn how to write for an audience. It was a writing class which shall go unnamed, and I got my first less-than-spectacular grade on an essay. I was floored. I had just gotten a stellar grade on an essay in a writing class known for having a very harsh teacher. This teacher was not known to be harsh at all—quite the opposite in fact. But this teacher complained that my essay wasn’t in the five-paragraph style, and didn’t start with a sentence that stated my purpose.
It took me a minute to realize it: she hated my style. It had nothing to do with whether my style was good or bad, it was just that she hated it. I was devastated. I worked hard on developing my essay style. I was proud of it. I’d gotten awards for it. And this teacher didn’t just not love it—she hated it!
But, of course I wanted a decent grade. So, swallowing my pride, I asked for her to tell me what she wanted—what a good essay looked like. And then, on the next essay? I made sure my writing would do what I felt she wanted while still being something to which I’d be proud to attach my name. And I got a good grade. She complimented me on my improvement. And I bit my tongue, nodded, and moved on.
So: will I go on to write in that style forever? Heavens, no. Do I think that style is superior to my own? Obviously not. But it was an incredibly useful exercise. I had a goal (to get a good grade) that defined my audience (my teacher)–and being able to write for an audience like that is super handy, especially for corporate writers, or anyone else who wants to be able to write for someone unlike themselves.
When I talk about considering an audience? I don’t mean that when that audience says jump, you jump, and when they say write about a pink gnome who smells like sauerkraut, rides a unicorn, and wields a mean mandolin, I don’t mean actually write that. I mean that if your goal is to write a book that a particular audience–be it the experts or the a subgroup of sci-fi fans–will enjoy, then just like when you buy a gift for someone, take their taste into consideration. Figure out what it is that tickles them about that sour-smelling gnome, and what you could do to give them more to enjoy in your book without sacrificing your style or your comfort.
The most obvious example for me in terms of considering your audience is kids. If you’re writing for kids, not keeping your audience in mind is silly. I mean: you’re not a kid! You like different things from kids. Like, you should probably use less swear words in a kid’s book. And it might be a good idea to focus on problems kids have, such as identity and relationships, rather than issues specific to adults. It’s also likely helpful to think about your word choice and sentence structure a little—both in terms of difficulty, and in terms of what kids will find funny. (Kids, for instance, tend to find shouting “diarrhea” way funnier than adults.) That doesn’t mean talk down to them-–they are far smarter than I remember being at that age!—but it does mean if you’re writing for kids, try to write something they would like.