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Whom Do You Write For?

One of the hardest questions that authors get asked perhaps too seldom is “Who are you writing for?” It’s also, perhaps, the most important. More important even than “Why are you writing?” or “What are you writing?”


Writing without an audience just doesn’t work. The audience completes the text, you see. Sure, the author may shape it but it’s the audience who imbues it with meaning; no audience, no text. Even when you are writing “just for yourself,” you have an audience, whose presence shapes the text (you obviously write differently when you write for just yourself than when you write for someone else)

When I ask my students “Who is this for?” when we’re practicing rhetorical analysis, or even when I’m workshopping with them, they usually answer “Anyone? Everyone?” This is a pretty universal response, really. But it’s also an entirely useless response.

It’s not my students’ faults, of course. It’s very hard to imagine other people as fully separate entities. We like to think about universality and we think a larger audience is always a good thing, but the opposite is really true. Writing really comes alive when the audience is clearly considered. Truly amazing writing isn’t about the author being heard; it’s about the audience feeling seen. Writing is, at its core, an act of empathy.

But for the audience to be seen, the author has to see them in some way, if only in imagination. And therein lies the trouble. And therein also—very often!—lies writer’s block.

Let me tell you two stories about writer’s block.

First story: Yesterday morning, I spent three hours trying to put together a 5-10 minute tutorial on formatting tricks in Microsoft Word. This is something I know intuitively; I can, and have, taught this in my sleep (I have weird dreams sometimes). I actually really enjoy working with formatting in Word. It’s magical and satisfying.

But yesterday, I couldn’t get it right. I was skipping steps. I was stumbling. I was losing track of things that I normally know where they are. Nothing was working for me.

But then my partner pointed out the difference: normally when I teach this lesson, I have my students in front of me. Normally, I can see who I’m talking to and I can engage them. But not this time. This time I was talking to no one. Of course I couldn’t get it right. Correctness and quality lies not in the author, but the audience.

Second story: Many years ago, I was helping my brother work on a college application for a program he really, really wanted to get into. My brother, mind you, is not very strong with conventional writing; he’s a good storyteller, but a lousy grammarian, and he can’t spell to save his life. So the essay was giving him trouble. He complained of the classic signs of writer’s block. He was so anxious about this essay he couldn’t even start it. I, in my teacherly way, was asking questions, trying to diagnose the problem over AIM, because of course that’s how we were talking at the time (I clung to that program to the day it died).

Finally, he told me he didn’t know who he was writing for. Aha! The problem was audience anticipation! So I coached him: I told him that his audience was academics, like me. So write to me, but me in my professional role.

The AIM window went quiet for too long. The “user is typing” notification flashed on and off. I got worried I’d offended him, and was about to ask if everything was ok, when paragraphs started streaming into my window.

There it was, a nearly perfect personal essay, fully formed and sprung from his head like Athena herself, just pouring into my window. It was so beautiful I nearly cried. And all he needed was a clear idea of his audience.

The point is that audience awareness makes the difference. For instance, I write more fiction when I imagine a fandom spinning off of it. Not because of the glory of having followers, but because of the joy of having someone involved. We all write better when we remember who is on the other side of the page.

The reader is perhaps more important than the writer
Image via stocksnap

But this is also why so much of our students’ writing isn’t their best work. We ask them to imagine that they write for an audience that they don’t know anything about, that they’ve never met, and at the same time we tell them that we ourselves will evaluate their writing. So they have a real audience and an imagined audience, and we ask them to write for the imagined audience more than the real audience. This puts them in an impossible situation, of course.

Worse, we don’t really talk enough about the role of the audience. Students are concerned about their topics and their own identities as author when they discuss their projects. These are their projects, after all, so it must be about them. The audience isn’t a major consideration, and that is probably the problem half the time.

But every genre has an implicit and requisite audience, whose expectations and needs shape the genre’s conventions far more than the authors who operate in those genres. Writing is an act of service, as good journalists understand. Writing is about delivering to your audience whatever it is the audience needs, wants, or craves. In order to do that, you need to know what they expect, who they are, and what their needs are.

When we remember who is on the other end of our pens, we write better. So, how can we help developing writers consider audience better?

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