Writing for your audience

Posted: July 18, 2013 in writing
Tags: , , , , ,

Unless you’re just writing for yourself, thinking about your audience is an important part of writing. It’s something I’ve been trained to do, and that I thought I was good at. But a couple of recent discussions have made me realise that I could do much better.

Thinking about my audience was a big part of my last job. They were labelled ‘customers’ not ‘audience’, but it came down to the same thing. After all, as a writer your audience are the customers for your work. While I was in that job I wrote and edited a lot of documents, and I was always thinking about the readers. How good was their grasp of written English? What things did we take for granted that they wouldn’t? Were we actually telling them what we thought we were telling them? How would font and format affect the reading experience?

When I’m writing fiction, thinking about audience is different. I write short stories to fit the requirements of particular markets, in terms of word count, genres, tone and content. If I come up with an idea that inspires me I think about what genre it fits into and what those readers expect.

Then there’s writing against expectations. I try not to fall into gender stereotypes in my stories, but that creates challenges. As I recently discovered when presenting a story to my writing group, readers picture a character the minute they’re mentioned. If that character doesn’t fit their default expectations – for example a soldier who’s female – then you need to make that clear quickly, or the reading experience will be disrupted later.

But a comment from glenatron on my post about editing made me realise my limitations. When I’m editing I don’t usually consider my audience, I just look for passages that don’t feel right to me. And I have a default picture of my readers, someone with a similar background and understanding of the world to me. But considering my response to a post by Liza of Classy Cat Books made me rethink this. There I was considering the extreme example of small children, but there are other assumptions we make about our default reader, beyond being an adult. If I want to reach anyone beyond middle class white British blokes like myself then I need to think about who else my audience could be, and how I write for them.

This is about thinking beyond yourself, putting your reader at the centre of your writing. It’s not a simple thing, or something anyone can perfect. It has as many facets as there are readers in the world. But it seems to me that it’s worth exploring more.

So, what do you think about this? If you write, how and when do you think about your audience? If you read (and these are written words, so I know you do) do you notice whether a book seems written for you, or perhaps more obviously when it really isn’t? What other thoughts do you have on the subject? Let me know in the comments – I’m only just starting to think about this, and am interested to get some other points of view.

  1. everwalker says:

    This is a challenging one to get right. I completely agree that you must keep your audience in mind when writing, BUT I also think that if you write for them rather than for you, you risk losing an element of spontaneous storytelling and personal style. It becomes reasoned and calculated, rather than instinctive and delighted. I’d say it’s actually better to do it the other way around – write the first draft just for you, to get the true essence of YOUR story, and then edit for the reader.

    • You’re right about the difficult balance, something I slightly lost track of in the excitement of this new thought. I suspect that the balance is different for different people, and for different aims. James Joyce seems to have written with a wild disregard for audience, and he’s now considered a genius, but as a reader I never got more than half way through Ulysses. But then I don’t want to go to the other extreme of writing mediocrity to please the market.

      I suspect this is something where our writing styles differ. I think that bearing the audience in mind more may actually help inspire me in my first draft, give me something I enjoy doing. Not going to a full-on ‘does this have enough vampires for the market?’ level (mm, sparkly), but giving me some boundaries to play with and play within. For me, working with the limitations I’ve been given can be as inspiring as whatever wild craziness is going on in my head.

  2. glenatron says:

    I tend to think of an audience like me, but I treat it a bit like the way I do programming. When I’m writing code, I try to think of ways that I can put in extra effort with what I’m writing to make everything as smooth as possible for the user. So a lot of what I try to focus on is what I know to be going on behind the curtain of the story and how I can use those things to make the narrative itself run more smoothly. A big part of this is writing a lot more background that doesn’t necessarily make it into the story but gives me context to explain events. That way I never feel like I’m handwaving about why things happen, I have good reasons for everything.

    The other part is being brutal about what I am writing and trying to think like a reader in terms of “what does this scene actually do for the story?” If it’s not doing anything important then maybe it could be adjusted to make it more relevant or cut. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m dropping slow sections or anything- controlling the pace is really important, but I guess I’m thinking about it like I’m designing a rollercoaster and I want each section of the ride to have purpose and sensation.

    If a hundredth of the theory I am talking about here ever makes it into the practice of my writing I will be quite happy 🙂

    • It’s interesting to see the details of what you’re talking about there. To an extent, what you’re looking at for your audience are the same things I’ve heard recommended in podcasts and books, except that they sometimes talk about it from a good craft perspective, while you’re more directly focussed on audience. I don’t know where I’m going with this thought, but I suspect it’ll crop back up in another post once I’ve worked it through.

      And pace is definitely something I’m coming back to another day.

      • glenatron says:

        I have been thinking about this today and I think a big aspect of it I missed in my original comment is characterised by asking how I want a given scene to make my audience feel. Having that perspective on it makes me focus on what I need to do to bring that about.

  3. […] Writing for your audience (andrewknighton.wordpress.com) […]

  4. […] from the course is the approach to other people’s opinions, and this ties into a discussion Andrew Knighton was having recently. How important is it for the audience / reader to get exactly the same ideas […]

  5. […] from the course is the approach to other people’s opinions, and this ties into a discussion Andrew Knighton was having recently. How important is it for the audience / reader to get exactly the same ideas […]

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