Ep 187: Write to Discover Your Ideal Reader

[Ep 187]

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

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