So last time I talked about the importance of knowing your audience when you write. Who are the people who are going to be reading this? What are their interests? Age? Sex? Education? Does any of that matter? And–most important–how do you find out?
Well, luckily for writers, you don’t have to hire a research firm to figure out audience statistics. Magazine and book publishers know that stuff already. So all you have to do is read their publications, which are already geared to their audience. Easy peasy.
Whenever I’ve started working with a new publisher, I’ve gotten the back issues and read every one. I own every issue but one of Somerset Studio, for example. (Whatever happened to that one issue is a complete mystery to me.) After you read enough issues, you get a good feel for the intended audience. Even better is if you are already a member of that audience–but it’s not necessary. Full-time freelance writers will write for everything from hunting magazines to publications for new moms to smaller special-interest stuff. The key: read enough issues to understand the audience. Same with book publishers. They know the people who buy their books; it’s not up to you to figure it out.
Now, you may think you have A Better Idea, that your idea for a book or a magazine article is the one that will take the publishers in a whole new–and, as you see it, a much better–direction. You may think all you have to do is convince them your idea is better, and then they’ll see the light. This reminds me of when I was teaching freshman English, and in every class, there would always be one or two people who would tell me, in their introductory essay, that they hoped we’d be able to learn a lot from each other during the semester. Now, I have had many students in a wide variety of classes and workshops, and I have learned a ton of stuff from them. But do you imagine I was impressed with the 18-year-old who started out his freshman comp class sure that he was going to teach me something he thought I needed to know? Eh.
The editors and publishers know what they’re doing. Whether or not you and your friends agree with them is something you might want to keep to yourself at the beginning of what you hope will be a long and mutually-beneficial relationship. Your job is not to point out what they’re doing wrong and what they need to do to make things better; your job is to understand what they’re doing and suggest things you can do that will work into that. So, for instance, if you contact Collage Monthly and suggest that they really feature way too many collages and need to offer some how-to articles on your favorite medium, woodworking, guess what’s probably going to happen. Much better if you find a way-cool new collage artist who’s starting to add wood pieces into her collages and suggest an article idea that your new editor thinks is brilliant.
And don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that you’re smarter/hipper/more knowledgeable/just-generally-more-fabulous than your audience. Sure, you’re writing a piece that gives them information that is brand new to them. That doesn’t mean you’re smarter; that means you’ve done your research. I once knew someone who did, indeed, think they (I should use either “he” or “she” here, of course, but am deliberately being vague) were smarter than “their” audience and couldn’t resist showing off and, perhaps, trying to enrich the audience’s vocabulary by introducing words like, oh, “deleterious” and “obfuscate” into the pieces “they” wrote. Now, those words are perfectly good words, but if you’re writing about how to make a necklace out of yarn and uncooked ziti? Your readers aren’t going to go, “Ooh, look! A new word for me to use in yoga class!” No. They’re going to think you’re very, very strange. Perhaps just the tiniest bit pompous, maybe. Don’t talk down to them, but also don’t explain things they already know. Those readers of Collage Monthly don’t need to have “collage” defined for them. They probably already know a lot about quite a bit of stuff, and using up part of your word count to explain what gesso is probably isn’t the best use of your allotted space.
The last thing to keep in mind: unless you’re very famous and the article or book you’re writing is about you and your fabulous self, remember: it’s not about you and your fabulous self. Your goal is not to get your personality to shine through in every sentence; your goal is to get your subject–whether it’s a person or a technique or an idea–to shine through. Your goal is not to write so cleverly that the reader finishes your piece and says, “My goodness, that Jane Doe sure is a good writer!” Nope. Your goal, especially if you’re writing about another person, is to have them have to look for your byline to see who wrote it. You want the focus to be on the subject, whatever it is, and to accomplish that so well that you are invisible. I take it as a big compliment when I read a letter to the editor about a piece I wrote and the writer exclaims how fabulous the artist is and doesn’t mention me. That’s my job: to make the subject shine and to keep myself out of light. That’s what good writing does for any subject, even if it’s bass fishing or kayaking: it makes it shine.
So those are some things to keep in mind when you’re thinking about writing for an audience. And, really, no matter what writing you’re doing, whether it’s for pay or on your blog or in the company newsletter, it’s about writing for an audience. Unless you’re writing in a journal that you intend 1) never, ever to show anyone ever and 2) to burn before you die, so no one will see it after, then you’re writing for someone else. Make it easy for them to get the full benefit of what you have to say, whether they’re your co-workers reading the company newsletter or your editor reading your very first article.
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