After a five-year hiatus from the college classroom, I’m teaching a business writing and communication class at the local university. I’m really enjoying it, and I’m learning just as much as I’m teaching. Or rather, re-learning.
Business writing consists of what is known in rhetorical terms as a reader-based text. Whatever you write, be it an email, memo, evaluation, proposal, ad, marketing plan, analysis, blog post, and so on, you need a clear idea of who your audience is, be it one reader or many. You also need a clear purpose of why you are writing this particular document, letter, etc., and how your writing strategy will achieve that purpose.
My job in the classroom is to get students thinking about their audience and purpose. It’s not easy for them, and believe me, I get it. Because sometimes it’s not easy for me. Sometimes, with this blog, I wonder who my reader is, and what I am trying to achieve not only with a particular blog post, but with the blog overall. I even sometimes struggle with my novel readers and genre, as well as my author website. After ten books, when someone asks me on the spot: “Who are your readers and what do you write?” I still stumble and stammer with my answer.
That’s not where I want to be, neither with this blog nor with my novel readers. But I’m getting better. Because as I teach this stuff, I practice it.
When it comes to a fiction writer’s audience and purpose, there’s a little wrinkle. The most common advice I give to writers is to write the book you want to read. In other words, you, the writer, are the most important reader, even the intended reader. Surely this is how I approach every book I write, especially when I am in the drafting stage. My thinking is this: If I saw this book on a table and opened it to the first page, what would keep me turning the pages? What would keep me drawn in, unable to put the book down?
It isn’t until I get to the revision stage that I think about readers other than me. What will keep them turning these pages? And who is/are my intended reader(s)? Sometimes the answer to that question depends on the book I’m writing. When I wrote my memoir, I thought about my fellow Duranies. Sometimes I even mentioned the actual members of Duran Duran reading it. When I wrote my novel Adulation, my intended readers were a group of friends I’d bonded with on Facebook, many of whom I had yet to meet in person. My husband was the intended reader for The Second First Time.
I wonder: When do we separate ourselves as the intended reader and someone else as the intended reader? Should we separate ourselves? Is that even possible?
In a Facebook group I belong to consisting mostly of bloggers, a woman shared that she made up a profile of her intended reader—she gave this imagined, fabricated reader (a female) a name, an age, a hometown and residence, a family, a profession, favorite foods and books and movies and TV shows and music, where she likes to shop, and even favorite clothes, I think. Hence, whenever this woman sits down to write a blog post, she writes for this reader as if she were a real person (in the woman’s mind, she is). And guess what? This writer has attracted a sizable audience to her blog, and they more or less match the profile of the imaginary reader.
I think that’s pretty cool. And I kind of want to try it myself.
Regardless of what you write, be it for business or pleasure, you need to write with audience and purpose in mind. The more clear you are about what you are writing while you are writing it, and who you are writing for, the more successful your finished product will be.
Here are three things you can do to practice mastering audience and purpose:
1. Make up a profile of your intended reader
Follow the blogger’s lead and imagine everything about your intended reader. This person could be real or imagined. S/he might even be a clone of yourself. The point is to play a little bit, but also to get as specific as possible. And restrict it to one reader. It has been said: “If you try to write for everyone, you will wind up writing for no one.”
2. Know your “why.”
This seems to be almost at buzzphrase lately, and it kind of annoys me. But I have to say, it really is important. Essentially, this is the purpose part of the rhetorical situation.
Why do you write the books you write? Why are you attracted to a particular genre or style? What kinds of characters do you like?
The answer to this question could be both extrinsic and intrinsic.
- Extrinsic: I write romantic comedy because I like finding humor in the baggage we bring to our love relationships.
- Intrinsic: I write romantic comedy because I want to bring a smile to someone’s face and give them something to escape to.
I’m currently reading a book on business writing for the purpose writing a review. In it the author asks: Who are you when you are writing this particular text or document? I don’t think that’s something I’ve considered in a long time, and I think knowing the answer is connected to knowing both your audience and your purpose.
3. Think in terms of problem-solving
Maybe the problem is that your intended reader is simply looking for a good book to read. Maybe they want to completely escape their world and move into one that is completely magical and different. Maybe they want to live vicariously through the protagonist. Maybe they want to solve mysteries, find buried treasure, travel the world, or live in their dream home. If you know your reader, you can make any or all of those things happen for her.
As I write this, I am imagining my reader as someone who writes novels but is having trouble identifying who their ideal reader for their stories is. Maybe she writes mysteries, but needs to be more specific. Maybe her ideal reader wants a hunky, Jim Rockford-type detective, and the books set in the 1970s. Maybe her ideal reader prefers mysteries that have nothing to do with murders or violence.
Thus, the problem I’m attempting to solve (and my purpose for writing this blog post) is how to get my intended reader to think about her intended reader and her purpose for writing what she writes.
If you write non-fiction, the problem-solving may be even more clear cut. Maybe your reader needs to lose weight. Quit smoking. Learn how to write in a business setting. Sell more books. Live in their dream home. When you know the problem and know the reader, you can more easily provide the solution.
Regardless of what you write, audience and purpose are at the heart of everything you write. Master them first, and the rest of your rhetorical situation (stance, style, genre) begins to fall into place.
And mastery takes practice. Fortunately, as writers, we get lots of practice. And we like to practice.