Know Your Audience

           Perhaps the biggest mistake writers make is not considering who their audience is. Without an answer to the question “Who am I writing for?” a writer WILL not succeed.

          The answer may simply be, “I’m writing for myself.” Actually, most writers write for themselves, if not all of the time, at least much of the time. There is nothing wrong with doing that, but if a writer wants others to read her/his work, the writer also must write for those potential readers—the audience.

          If the writer hopes to favorably touch his audience, she/he must know who the potential readers are, what they are interested in reading, and what touches their emotions.

          Increasingly, it is difficult to write for a general audience. General audiences are hard to find in our modern society. Audiences under thirty years of age require difference references and have different thoughts and emotions, have had different recent experiences, and different expectations than audiences over fifty. For example, even in the broad category of mystery stories, age matter. People under thirty expect protagonists and probably villains to be familiar with and use the latest technologies and social networks, but many people over fifty aren’t comfortable reading about clues or developments involving Tweeter, Facebook, and other recent developments. In my recently published collection of short stories Hoosier Hysteria, Sons, and Other Stories, I included stories I had written in the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s. For a number of the stories, I rewrote sections to bring them up to date. When I wrote the story “The Mysteriously Missing Murder” in the 1980’s, newspaper reporter Brad Reilly used pay phones and typewriters. In the updated version, he uses cell phones and computers. In a few instances, I decided a story would be damaged by referring to modern technology, so I set them in an early period when such technologies didn’t exist. I realized that doing this might make the stories less appealing to a younger audience, but in some instances there was a tradeoff between keeping the story line pure and bringing the story up-to-date. I hoped the stories in the book that were up-to-date (some stories are even set in the future) would satisfy the younger audience.

          Of course, a writer can attempt to give readers a very brief description of a modern technology or social activity to help the older audience members understand them, but sometimes such descriptions get in the way or frustrate younger people who think “I knew that” or “that’s not quite right,” and such descriptions may not satisfy the older reader.

          There are other audience demographics that may affect how a story is received. Women and men often like the same kind of fiction, but there are kinds of fiction women like more than men and vice versa. A writer might decide to be gender neutral or to write for a gender specific audience. Whatever the write decides, it should be a thought out strategy.

          The same is true for race. For example, young Hispanics who are recent residents in the United States have had quite different experiences than older white and black Americans who have lived their entire lives in this country. Thus, stories that might touch older black and white readers might not touch young Hispanic readers. And of course, while many black and white Americans have had similar life experiences, many others have had quite different ones. Aiming for the general audience will work in some cases, but not in all.

          Geographics can also be an issue. In one story in my book, “Hoosier Hysteria,” a teenage boy wants to impress a cheerleader at his high school, so he hopes to become his school’s star basketball player during Hoosier Hysteria, the Indiana state high school basketball tournament. Everyone from Indiana and many from surrounding states know what Hoosier Hysteria is and how important it is to Hoosiers. However, a reader in Arizona is unlikely to be familiar with the term or the importance of the tournament. So even though the climax of the story is set in the tournament, I setup the story with a number of experiences to which readers from anywhere in the United States can relate. Thus, although Indiana residents may get more from the story, its climax works for readers regardless of whether or not they had fore knowledge of the term “Hoosier Hysteria” or its importance.

          What do readers want and need from fiction? People read for different reasons. Years ago, a college instruction asked a group of students who read a lot and who hoped to be writers what satisfied them and justified their efforts in reading fiction. Mostly, the class settled on four things—mood (though the class had trouble defining what mood was), vicarious existence, intellectual exercise, and purpose. The class discussed these four and a number of other “legitimate” reader needs without coming to agreement on which was most important. That was probably because different readers have different needs. Then a student in the back of the room who was not a good writer but was an avid reader said the most important thing in fiction to him was “contact.” Nearly everyone in the class agreed that contact was basic and universal.

          What does “contact” mean? It means a story is on a subject that interests the reader or the story touches the reader in some intellectual, emotional, or spiritual way. So, to aim a story at an audience or to find an audience for a story, the writer know what interests and what touches the audiences.

          Reader contact can be made with a story’s subject. Avid Civil War fans will read almost anything on that subject. Readers fascinated by the high seas and pirates will read everything they can on those subjects. The same is true for hundreds of subjects. P.G. Wodehouse, who wrote ninety-three novels and hundreds of short stories, penned dozens of stories for avid golfers. Written decades ago, those stories are still enjoyed by old and young golf enthusiasts. My story Hoosier Hysteria is about a teenage boy’s first bout with love and is set during the Indiana state high school basketball tournament. Many readers enjoy stories about young people “coming of age” and others love to read sports stories. My story Next Time by Fire will interest readers concerned about the environment. Whatever subject you write about, your goal is to find those who are interested in that subject.

Characters also contact readers. A character can be a general hero; a hero to a specific group; admired for her/his intellect, courage, sacrifice, or for some other trait; admired for her/his romance, sensitivity, or dedication; sympathetic because of her/his circumstance; feared for some reason; or can be charismatic for many other reasons. Wodehouse wrote several novels and many short stories about Bertie Wooster and his man-servant Jeeves. Bertie was lovingly daffy and time-and-again depended upon Jeeves’ fish nourished brain to get him out of difficulties related to romance and the police. In my story The Mysteriously Missing Murder, many readers will be drawn to protagonist Brad Reilly, journalism’s answer to Inspector Clousea. Readers will also be drawn to Sadie and Beverly in The Death of Sadie Wilson.

A location or time period may contact many readers. Many readers enjoy stories set in exotic foreign lands, while other readers crave stories set in certain time periods, such as the nineteenth century, the 1920’s, or ancient Rome.

          The writer’s job is to craft stories that touch the audience’s interest, have captivating characters, and touch readers in other ways. To do this, the writer must know the audience.

Knowing your audience is particularly important if you want to write to make money. People will only buy what they like. You may like what you write, but others also must like it before they will buy it.

Even if you share your writing with family and friends, if you want to make money writing, they are not your audience. And they are poor critics. They will either praise everything you write, even the bad, or they will nitpick your writing, pointing out spelling errors, listing punctuation errors, and telling how they would write something, until you are discouraged or distracted. Someone once said, “There is nothing more passionately embraced than the opportunity to edit the work of others.” If only a fifth of those who made suggestions knew what they were talking about.

If you want advice on writing, join writers’ groups. They are everywhere and are on the Internet. But even in these groups, listen to others but be yourself. Always keep in mind, you are the writer. You are the creator. If you have talent, it will blossom and show. But even with talent, if you are to succeed as you develop stories, consider who would be interested in them and then tailor your story to that audience.

This is particularly true for new and less well-known writers. There’s a good chance there are people out there who will enjoy reading what you have written. The problem is finding them. Today, the Internet and other technologies make that more possible, but it is a lot easier and cost effective if you target your audience.

If your audience is interested in or touched by your story, they will stay with it even during difficult parts. Less interested readers will give up and likely not come back to read more of your work. A non-fiction example of this is how a reader plows through any complexity of words, signs, or hieroglyphs to learn about a scientific subject that interests him. The same holds true for those who read fiction. If the subject or story touches them, readers will stay with the writer even during parts of a story that is difficult to read. Years ago, one experimentally minded newspaper editor ran articles about a sensational paternity case involving a widely known figure of the entertainment world with small headlines on back pages of the newspaper in an attempt to hide them from readers. Still, surveys showed readers sought out the stories and read them. People will read what interests them regardless of how difficult it is to find or read. The converse is also true. People won’t read what doesn’t interest them, regardless of how easy it is to find or how well it is written.

Having said that, readership surveys show the easier something is to read, the more likely it will be read. Know your audience and write about subjects that interest and touch them, but write for them in a simple, easy to read manner. Readers like shorter sentences and shorter and non-abstract words. Action words are appealing to readers, particularly for the younger and less sophisticated readers. Sometimes a writer must deal with abstracts rather than action. If so, she/he must do so knowingly. In Sons (from my book), the story I was telling was about the agony of a parent choosing which of his family members would die. I could have written a similar story but solely as an action piece. Had I done so, that story might have had a broader appeal. I wanted to examine the agony a parent would suffer when facing such a choice. I knew the audience for my story would be a more thoughtful one and would be a smaller one than an action story. Writers can make such choices, but they should do so knowingly. When I made my decision to include Sons in my book, I knew that others stories in the book would appeal to a broader audience.

Still, once a writer decides who his audience is, she/he should write in as simple and clear language as possible. I did this in Sons.

The “stop theory” of writing says that when a reader has to stop and think about what she/he has just read, the stop interferes with the reader’s interest. Too many “stops” cause readers to lose interest and stops reading. Interest killing stops are bad from any kind of writing. They are deadly for fiction. Reader may work through difficult language in a computer manual, but mostly readers choose fiction for entertainment. If they loose interest, they stop reading.

Research has shown that the reading level of material, not the intellect of the reader, determines what readers will tolerate. Many great and enduring pieces of literature were written at a low “grade school level.” Many were written at the sixth grade level, and many more at the seventh and eighth grade level. For example, consider Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ben-Hur, and Gone with the Wind. None of these were written above the eighth grade level. The well educated reader will read something written at the sixth grade level, as long as it is well written and it is on a subject that interests her/him. The educational level of the reader determines how much she/he gets from the writing, not whether she/he will read it. Consider the writing of James Thurber, who used simple language but wrote with great sophistication. A child could read The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and get the meaning of its sentences but would miss overtones that have made the story a classic. Despite its simply language, the book has been read and enjoyed by generations of well-educated readers.

Research shows that readers do not choose to tax themselves to their fullest reading ability. There is little reason they should. Nearly any subject in fiction can be written about in or below the mid high school level. If an author understands her/his subject, he can treat it in simple language that conserves the reader’s energy and holds his interest.

To succeed at writing, know your audience, write to touch them, and use simply, clear language.

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