Considering the Reader
At the heart of any creative endeavor, there is always a question about the audience. It’s one that really plagues starting writers, who often carry around a lot of doubt—often so much that they forget to start writing. But questions about the reader come up a lot at writers conventions and lecture series, always to be answered by a variety of marketing professionals checking in with questions about target audiences, sales demographics, trends, ideal readers, and any other variety of tips about the proper targeting of books. Even in my coaching and editing work, I often find conversations being steered back towards these considerations; how to write with these things in mind.
So who should I write for? In truth, it’s a question that has never sat well with me. Not being a marketer, I find it hard to reduce both the art and science of language to a set of easily digestible metrics. But being on the other side helps me appreciate the menace lurking there: writers who wish to get paid want to consider the commercial viability of their work; they also need to be able to devote themselves to that work in a way that often defies the common wisdom. How do you do both? What the marketing person is really asking is a pretty hard question for a lot of writers to answer, and one that can paralyze an endeavor.
Writing anything throws up a lot of roadblocks. Trying to imagine how our friends could react; dreaming up snappy comebacks from that grad student that ran your college composition class; remembering that your mom buys books too. Would-be writers can often have a lot to work out before they can really answer the basic marketing questions. Worse, none of that helps inform them on questions of style, and trying to figure out what the audience wants is a sure recipe for disaster.
The reason is simple: the audience doesn’t know. They really do expect the writer to tell them.
Writers have to relate to writing a little differently than people in more casual settings. In life, we can hide behind our ambiguities. In life, our friends don’t have to know what we think. In life, we only talk to the people we know about the things that are safe. In life, we can always walk it back or explain it more. But writing is real, definite—a committed position. Writing doesn’t get to be lost in the distortion of memory. It begins where the writers say and ends where they say. Once set down, words do not change.
The reader doesn’t experience any of this of course. They just read the book and give it a however many stars on Amazon.
Readers don’t care about that stuff; they don’t really go into books looking to be impressed—only critics do that. Readers go into books prepared to fall in love, or at least in lust. They want to know the story or the secret of life. They are anxious to explore ideas about finance or politics. They are just as into dinosaur sex as you are (or at least curious). Sometimes they will resist something you do, but no writer should ever expect to reach everyone.
Writers don’t experience any of this of course. They just watch sales figures and get nervous about reviews.
So my advice is often thus: at its best, because writing can easily be imagined as an act of transcendent courage or sublime self-absorption. The writer who can approach the reader with their hands open, and with honest intent will reach the right audience within whatever demographic you choose to embrace. Let the reader decide for themselves because good writing is always about ideas, and never just about identities. Instead, imagine your reader as one who shares your passions and enjoys the same imaginative landscape that you do. After all, if you like your work, someone else will too.
So yes, everything depends entirely on how the writer imagines their relationship with their audience. If they are antagonistic, they should write with the conviction that they are dismantling objections. If they are friendly, the writer should show them respect and assume that they will embrace your point of view. If you can be genuine, you will never fail to find some kind of success. The demographics are just details.