Audience and Purpose: The Heart of Every Piece of Writing

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.

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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.

 

blog post audiecne and purpose 2

 

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.

When You Write, Keep These 5 Things in Mind

Writing is always a series of choices.

There are certain aspects of writing that, like driving a car, have become instinctive. You don’t need to think too much about what words to use when sending a text to a friend (if you even use words at all!), nor do you need to proofread a shopping list. Other kinds of writing, however, may need a great deal of care and consideration: a technical manual for how to build or use a piece of life-saving equipment. A science fiction novel or a murder mystery. A screenplay or television series pilot.

What all these kinds of writing have in common is that, whether consciously or not, the writer is applying the rhetorical situation, and some do it more successfully than others.

Here’s the definition of rhetoric I always supplied my English 101 students (and family members who were perplexed about what I was studying in graduate school):

The art and skill of using language to communicate and/or persuade.

Every rhetorical situation consists of these three elements:

  • Purpose
  • Audience
  • Text

We may talk about them as if they’re separate entities, but in the rhetorical situation they’re inextricably linked, each one playing off the other.

Two more elements determine the effectiveness of the first three:

  • Style
  • Stance

 

rhetorical situation graphic

I like to demonstrate the rhetorical situation by using something ubiquitous: a Facebook status update.

Here’s one I recently posted on my personal Facebook page:

Funny/not funny how when I need to clean, all I want to do is write, and when I need to write, all I want to do is clean.

The kitchen is a disaster. Which means some kick-ass blog posts are gonna happen.

 

So let’s examine the five elements by conducting a rhetorical analysis.

  1. Purpose

When we talk about purpose, we’re asking is my call to write, my reason for writing? What do I want to achieve by writing this?

  • In the case of my status update, any/all of these defined my purpose:
  • To communicate something ordinary in an extraordinary way.
  • To express a truth.
  • To express disinterest in cleaning.
  • To communicate that disinterest in a humorous way.
  • To inform readers.
  • To make readers laugh.

 

Some of these were conscious, others less so. I definitely wanted to make my readers laugh. And writers especially know that when writing becomes difficult, the temptation to do something else becomes very strong. I also made an observation by noting that the temptation/distraction stimulus works in reverse.

I wasn’t consciously thinking about informing my readers, “Hey, I need to clean my house,” but Facebook is typically the vehicle for posting the mundane. Was this information, they absolutely needed to know? No. And thus, because of that, I had to find a way to make it appealing, and so I made it funny. (Or tried to.)

 

2. Audience

I am quite conscious of audience when I’m posting on Facebook. I think many are, and that’s what figures into what they will and will not post. My Facebook audience on my profile page consists mostly of family and good friends. It also consists of former students, and people I have yet to meet in person—namely, fellow authors and friends of other friends.

As a wordsmith myself, how do I want to reach these readers/viewers? For one thing, I want to convey humor and wit. I also, at times, want to convey the courage of my convictions. Sometimes I share snippets of dialogue between my husband and me. And sometimes I just want to share photos of my cat or my meals, like most people.

And, of course, I want them to read my books. Thus, rather than say, “Buy my book!” I’d much rather embody the qualities of my books in my status updates. Storytelling. Dialogue. Humor. Relationships. Love.

Do I do this every time? No. Sometimes I’m just being me, speaking directly to the people I most care about. However, no matter what I post I am aware, at all times, that my message has a reader.

 

3. Text

When I say “text,” I mean the medium or genre that houses the writing—a text, tweet, status update, email, open letter, blog post, essay, term paper, dissertation, short story, screenplay, novel—all of these qualify as a “genre.”

Facebook status updates can sometimes run the length of a blog post or an article, or it could be as brief as a text or a tweet. In the case of the above example, I didn’t need to write something lengthy. It’s Facebook, after all. Not a novel. And my subject was mundane. Brevity was best.

 

4. Style

I’ve taken and taught classes devoted entirely to writing style. When I’m talking style, I’m talking word choice. How am I going to put the words together in a way that not only communicates my message, but also identifies and represents me as the writer? What words to I use to establish credibility, to stir readers’ emotions, to persuade them to see my point of view or take action? If I want to make readers laugh, then what words do I use? How do I write in a way that readers know the status update is from me, Elisa, before they even see my name attached?

The word “kick-ass” (is it one word?) is a giveaway, for one thing. The colloquial “gonna” is another; its intention is to make the reader not only read the words but hear my New York accent, my voice. And the use of “antithesis”—putting opposites together: when I need to clean, all I want to do is write, and when I need to write, all I want to do is clean.

 

5. Stance

Stance refers to attitude or viewpoint in approach. If I were taking a position on a political issue, then my stance would be impassioned, but not angry. A desire to embrace readers as co-thinkers rather than shout them down or belittle them for having a different position. If I’m writing a comedic novel, then my character might be sarcastic or dry in his or her delivery.

When I’m writing novels, I don’t think consciously about stance; rather, I think the characters, story, and characteristics of the novel’s genre (mystery, chick lit, etc.) all play a role in determining stance.

In the case of my status update, my stance was to simply take a humorous approach rather than outright complain about how much I was dreading cleaning my kitchen.

 

Good writing is the result of good choices. Bad writing is the result of bad choices.

Good writing is also a well executed rhetorical situation. And the good news: regardless of what level you’re at in terms of craft—beginner or seasoned—you engage in rhetorical situation, and you can make it work if you take the time to make those choices. And if you are a beginner, remember what driving a car was like: at first, you need to think of everything at once. But the more you do it, and the better you get, the more those decisions and actions become second nature.

 

I did clean my kitchen, by the way. And my next status update?

Cleaning is a love letter to your home.

 

Activity/Discussion: Conduct a rhetorical analysis on the follow-up status update. What was the reader’s purpose? As a reader, how do you respond or react to it? How does the stance differ from its previous status update? Share your thoughts about it in the comments!

What is The Writer’s Habit?

Covey’s definition of a habit jumped out at me: the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire. Moreover, “In order to make something a habit, we need all three.”

In essence, that’s what I was communicating; that to be a writer, one needed knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do it, or craft), and desire (wanting to do it), and that each feeds off the other.

Knowledge, Skill, and Desire

It took me at least seven years to finish my book The Writer’s Habit. I knew I wanted to write a book predominantly for aspiring novelists using a rhetorical approach rather than a literary one. (That is, focusing on elements like audience, purpose, genre, stance, and style rather than plot, theme, symbolism, climax, and exposition.) That’s not to say one is better than the other. But, given my training in rhetoric and composition, it made more sense for me to approach novel writing from that perspective.

What I struggled with, however, was how to put the information together in a way that neither felt too textbook-y nor too I’m-trying-to-be-OnWriting.

It wasn’t until this year, as I was finally finishing the book, that I found the angle, the way to tie everything together. I had unearthed my copy of Stephen Covey’s renowned The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and read the first pages as a refresher. Covey’s definition of a habit jumped out at me: the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire. Moreover, “In order to make something a habit, we need all three.”

In essence, that’s what I was communicating; that to be a writer, one needed knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do it, or craft), and desire (wanting to do it), and that each feeds off the other.

And so, I organizing the book accordingly.

Knowledge (what to do)

In this section, I give a basic overview of the definition of rhetoric, its origins, and how to apply the rhetorical situation. I also discuss into writing for audience (and when to ignore them), writing what you know (and its sometimes misunderstood meaning), and the assertion that “writers write.”

 

Skill (how to do it)

Here is where theory meets practice. The most comprehensive section of the book, I introduce the craft of storytelling in which I feature these key components: narration and description, intention and obstacle, story structure, character development, dialogue, and setting. Many of this blog’s future posts will highlight lessons or features of each.

Additionally, I discuss the writing process, including drafting, organization and arrangement, stylistics, revision, and editing.

As with music and sports, the more you practice, the better you get.

Desire (wanting to do it)

The more I speak to aspiring writers, the more I believe that desire is what holds many of them back. And it’s not necessarily that they don’t want to do it, it’s that they’re afraid to do it. They’re afraid of not having the time, not being good enough, or old enough, or young enough, or rich enough, or smart enough, and so on. They fear failure. They fear success. They’re unwilling to persist. They’re unwilling to learn. They’re unwilling to commit. I say that not as a judgment, but as the reaction to that fear. I’ve been there, if not in the creative or the writing aspect, then certainly in the commitment as an entrepreneur.

This section of the book also touches on the business of being a published writer. I’ve learned even more since publishing The Writer’s Habit, and I look forward to sharing what I’ve learned.

Desire is the aspect of The Writer’s Habit that I tend to be most passionate about (although I definitely geek out when talking craft, process, and heck even just simple rhetorical situation stuff). And you’ll see why when I begin unveiling the online courses.

Overall, I aim not to teach writers to write, but to develop and master the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire so that writing becomes a habit, regardless of the scope. And what I love is that its lessons are quite versatile.

Moreover, I don’t want to only share my successes, but also my mistakes. Like anyone else, I’ve made them, and I’ve come to see them as necessary stepping stones on the path toward actualizing my goals as a writer and an author.

 

The bottom line: I want The Writer’s Habit—and this companion blog—to convey the joy that is inherent in my writing as well as my process. Joy doesn’t necessarily mean the happy-feel-goods. Writing—especially as a job and a profession, can be arduous or laborious at times. In fact, sometimes it can be downright tedious and discouraging. But I can think of no better gig than one that allows me to use my imagination, connect with readers and other writers, and navigate through this life journey with humor, depth, and wordsmithing. I’m a lucky woman.

 

 Activity/Discussion: Do you see writing as a habit? How do you combine knowledge, skill, and desire? Do you think you need more practice or development in one of those components? Please respond in the comments!

Have you seen my author website? I invite you to visit and sign up for my author mailing list. You can also sign up here for The Writer’s Habit mailing list!

the writers habit cover