For your consideration: why writers need to write for an audience

Writers write. For every reason under the sun. They write because they can’t not write, they write because they aren’t good at anything else, they write because they have stories they want and need to tell. Some write because they have demons, some write because it’s cheaper than therapy. But every writer writes with an internal drive or purpose. A word to the wise: no one hiring you cares why you write—they just care about how and who you write to.

Sorry if that sounds cynical, but it’s the truth—why you write will help fuel your writing, but your ability to write for an audience will help you land (and keep) jobs. To make it as an effective, professional, working writer, you must master the ability to write for any audience thrown at you. “Who am I writing this for?” then becomes the most important question you must answer as a writer.

The acclaimed American writer Kurt Vonnegut (whose position on semicolons is also featured on this blog) said in a series of interviews, “… every successful creative person creates with an audience of one in mind. That’s the secret of artistic unity. Anybody can achieve it if he or she makes something with only one person in mind.” Of course, Vonnegut is a fiction writer but his mindset is on the right track.

In non-fiction writing for publishers and brands, professional writers must be audience-centered, not writer-centered. That’s not to say publishers and brands want writers to abandon their writer’s voice (far from it—your writer’s voice is a selling point!), but writers need to use a tone and language that aligns with the audience they’re writing for. Here’s why writers need to write for an audience.

Who is reading this?

It’s a simple enough question. Any good publisher or brand has a publisher brief containing detailed information about the audience; they will tell you who this content is for, the publisher or brand’s objectives, and any other specific instructions (as well as links to style guides).

But for writers working on spec or pitching to publications for work, you need to determine the audience to demonstrate you understand the publisher or brand. If that’s the case, ask yourself:

  • Why are they reading this? Are they bored at work? Are they looking for genuine advice and useful information? Are they susceptible to clickbait? Thinking about why so-and-so took the time to read this will help shape your language.
  • How and where are they reading this? Are they sitting down with a copy of your book? Are they on their phone standing in line for the bus? Are they at the office reading this on a lunch break? Keep in mind the devices people will read your content on (smartphone, tablet, computer, print, etc.) and that everyone has a short attention span these days. A rule to live by? Write for skimmers on the internet.
  • How knowledgeable is your audience on a subject? How old are they? Are they laymen, novices, experts—somewhere in between? Understanding your audience’s familiarity with the subject matter/topic and the highest level of education they received will help shape the language, style, and even tone you use. A good writer acknowledges its audience’s knowledge. It’s also worth noting that knowledge and age do not necessarily go hand in hand. Just because you are writing to a millennial audience does not mean they know everything about Snapchat (but chances are, they do) or writing to baby boomers that they know little about the internet. Separate knowledge and age where applicable.
  • What else are they reading? In other words, what other content is your audience consuming? It’s always nice to have a finger on the pulse of what people are reading, and you should know who your brand or publisher’s competitors are so you a) aren’t regurgitating information, and b) can offer a new angle on the content. For example, as I researched this article, I found that most of my “competitors” on the web are geared toward students in academia. Thus, this article is not written for them, but newbie professional writers trying to break in (see below).

Finally, write all of this down! It’s a handy little guide you can refer to.

To “eat my dog food,” as they say in the startup world, I’ll show you my rough audience persona for you, the person reading this blog. You are probably:

  • A freelance writer looking for advice
  • A beginner or novice in content marketing who knows a small to fair amount of freelance writing with brands and publishers
  • New to freelance writing and probably, but not necessarily, a millennial entering the workforce or switching careers
  • Skimming this on your phone at work or on the go
  • Reading content from the likes of Buffer, NewsCred, Contently and other blogs
  • My mom (hi mom!)

See how easy that was!

Why are they reading this?

Okay, so I fibbed—why you are writing something also matters to publishers and brands. That’s what content marketing is all about. You should understand that you are writing this content to drive sales, magazine subscriptions, to fill out the publication, [insert financial-related decision here]. You should never be writing something just because. But again—that’s not as important as knowing why your audience is reading your content.

One of my favourite comedians John Mulaney has a bit about how it’s so much easier not to do anything at all. In a virtual world of saturated content and distractions aplenty, why is your audience giving you this amount of attention? Why are they reading you at all? If you’re doing your job right, it’s because you made the content engaging, entertaining, informative, interesting, [insert adjective here]. And that, kids, is why you need to write for your audience.

Bonus: here’s the Mulaney bit.

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