The Importance of Knowing Who You are Writing To
Do you remember those essays you had to write in school? They might have been about George Washington crossing the Delaware, Harriet Tubman or maybe what we did for our summer vacation. We churned them out as best we could and dutifully turned them in, sometimes flexing our writing hand to keep it from cramping. Of course, we weren’t really writing them for ourselves or our classmates or our parents. No, the one thing all these essays had in common was that we were writing them for an audience of one: our teacher.
Once we left school, we weren’t writing just for teachers. We were writing for an audience of many instead of one. And for the first time, we had to really consider that audience. We were told we had to ‘know our audience.’
What’s the point? Well, if you’re going to take the time to put all those black squiggles on a page, you usually have a reason. Maybe it’s to persuade someone over to your point of view. Maybe you’re trying to explain something or put a situation into the proper context. Whatever the reason, you want to get your point across as best you can, and the way to do that is to speak the audience’s ‘language.’ What words are most likely to stir them into action? Or get them to even read what you’ve written at all?
The more clearly you can visualize who you’re going to be writing to, the more effective your writing will be, and the more likely you are to realize the results you wanted by writing it the first place.
Many writers are afraid of being too specific. After all, why limit yourself to a select audience when you can reach everyone? Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. The reality is that when you try to talk to everyone, you’re really talking to no one.
To really communicate with your audience, you have to know them. It’s not enough to say “well, I’ll be writing to women ages 25 to 45 who live in New England and like x, y and z.” Instead think of your audience the way you would as if you were writing to a close friend or to a character in a novel. The more you can focus in on that one person, the more personal and intimate your writing will feel— and the more effective it will be. After all, who doesn’t like some personal attention now and then?
Narrowing your audience not only makes your writing more effective, it makes it easier. You know who you’re writing to. You know their strengths and the areas where they’re likely to struggle. You know where and how to reach them. You know what they’re likely to respond to and what they’ll tend to ignore. In short, half your work is already done for you.
You also have a good idea of the topics that will get their attention and how to ease them into related topics. Hone into your audience closely enough, and your topics practically select themselves.
It’s funny how things come full circle sometimes. Even after growing up and leaving the school essay behind, the best writing we’ll ever do is still written for an audience of one. Somewhere our old teacher is smiling.