Knowing your audience doesn't mean you have a personal relationship with everyone who reads your work. In fact, it has less to do with your actual readership, and more to do with your potential readership. If you're Stephen King or J. K. Rowling you can be sure of your audience; for everyone else, you need to write in such a way that those whom you want to read your essay will, in fact, want to read your essay.
This means not just "writing for yourself." We hear this practice encouraged more and more in our self-centered culture, but the truth is that if you're just writing for yourself, you're writing for no reason. If you're only writing for yourself, why do you even need to write? Just think the words, and you're set. But if you're writing for other people, you need to seriously contemplate what you're going to say, and then say it in a way others can understand and relate to.
Let's say you want to write a story about baseball. Are you going to use a bunch of football analogies? Of course not! What baseball fan worth his salt would want to read an article about his favorite sport if it's filled with allusions to a barbaric violence ritual? Or you want to write about your favorite porcelain teacup. If you choose to express yourself using Brooklyn slang, chances are neither a Brooklynite nor a teapartying Jane Austen fan will have any interest in your essay or your opinion.
But, you might object, I want people to break out of their self-imposed confinement and realize the value of other things. That's fine, but if they don't want to do those things, your essay won't make them. Have no delusions: your writing only has so much power. If you can't attract readers, you won't have an audience, and if you can't aim at a particular audience you won't have any audience at all. A Brooklynite will only read about teaparties if he's already interested in doing so.
Does all this provide license to fall into a creative rut and simply write the same types of things over and over? Only if you view writing as a drudgery, and not as an opportunity to share ideas and interests with others. (Which, by the way, further demonstrates the absurdity and futility of writing for yourself.) If, however, you're excited about showing others something you know about or have experienced, you'll be excited to write, and you'll want to shape each effort to meet the audience for which it is intended.
This doesn't mean you can't cross audiences. If there was a baseball player renowned for his collection of teacups, it might be appropriate to aim at baseball fans and teaparty fans at the same time. However, this is a fairly tricky business, and should only be attempted by veteran writers. Beginners have enough trouble holding onto one topic and making that interesting, they don't need to worry about juggling topics and audiences.
Writers of any experience level must take their readership into account. It helps them shape their writing, cutting out what's unnecessary and adding items of interest as needed, and clarifying the overall idea or theme to suit both the topic and the projected audience. In this sense, identifying an audience and bearing it in mind while writing is one of the most important tasks of a writer, and one that must be done every time a new writing project is undertaken.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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