Updated: Jul 29, 2021
Guest Post by Jahleen Turnbull-Sousa
How to Write for Your Audience—Not Yourself
Writing is meant to be read. Unless you are writing for your eyes only—words tucked away in your journal or hard drive, never to be seen by others—you are writing for an audience. Embracing that audience and including them in your writing process is critical to good writing.
Many writers, particularly those new or inexperienced, fail to consider their audience as they write. They may work hard to write something they would like to read, choosing content and structure based on their own understanding and interests. But being your own audience results in writer-centric writing that is difficult to understand and does not offer real value to the reader.
Why is your audience so important?
Writers who do not consider their audience may have forgotten that writing is communicating. Whether you are writing a novel, a self-help book, a how-to article, or a medical-legal report, you are conversing with the reader through the written word. You have a message to communicate, and you want the reader to understand and act on it.
In face-to-face conversation, we instinctively consider our audience as we choose our words, form arguments, and develop strategies to explain our message in terms our listener can understand and accept. However, if someone speaks to us only about themselves or uses terms or jargon we don’t understand, we stop listening.
Writing is the same. If you write for yourself, and not your audience, your readers will stop listening to your message. This may mean lower book sales, fewer conversions, losing bids, or referrers or clients not hiring you again.
How to include your audience in the writing process
If you want your audience to read your message, understand it, and act on it, you must admit them into the writing process. Good writers do this in three important ways:
identify and get to know their audience
consider their purpose of writing to that audience
cultivate appreciation and empathy for their audience
Let’s briefly discuss what each of these steps includes.
Identify and get to know your audience
Define your readership. Try to be as specific as possible. Ask these questions:
Who will be reading your report/book/manual/blog?
Is it an individual, or is it a group of people?
If you have more than one audience, which one is primary? Secondary?
Where and how will they access your document?
Avoid defining your audience as “the general public,” as such a vague term will not help you focus your writing on your readers’ needs. The general public comprises several groups of people, so if your writing is intended for broad readership, identify the groups of people within that readership who form your primary and secondary audiences.
Defining your audience is easier if your reader is an individual, particularly if it’s someone you already know. If you are a medical expert hired by a lawyer to write a report for the court, you likely will have met or at least have had a conversation with the referrer. You will know their law firm, their area of practice, and perhaps their experience with the type of case for which they have hired you, and this information will help you craft a report that meets their needs and expectations.
If you are writing to a group of people (e.g., middle-grade readers, home gardeners, personal injury firm), create an audience persona, or a fictional profile of an individual, to represent your ideal audience member.
Create an audience persona by:
giving the audience representative a name
writing down some defining characteristics about them
printing out a stock image to give them a face
posting the picture where you can see it as you write
For example, here is my audience persona:
38-year-old woman; lives in Toronto; works as writer-editor in business, nonfiction, and medical-legal fields; homeowner; married; cat owner; enjoys gardening, cooking, camping, and playing piano
Some of those details may seem trivial, but trust in the process. Gathering as much information as possible about your readers (even if it is fictional) will help your writer brain to change perspective and focus on the reader, not yourself.
Once you have identified your audience, take a step back and ask why you are communicating with them. Why does this document exist? The answer to that question is never “Because my boss/friend/client told me to write it.”
Ask these questions:
Why does this document need to exist?
Why is it written for this specific audience?
What is this document’s overall objective?
What effect do you want the writing to have on your audience?
What do you want your audience to do after reading it?
Your purpose for writing to your audience may be to entertain (e.g., fiction, narrative nonfiction), to educate (e.g., academic, prescriptive nonfiction), or to inform, persuade, or provide answers to specific questions (e.g., medical-legal reports, departmental reports, RFP responses).
The reader’s purpose
Good writers consider the reader’s purpose as well as their own. Sometimes those purposes differ. You may have written a novel about a dystopian future with the premise that humans need to act immediately to counteract the effects of climate change. Your primary purpose in writing a novel may be to effect positive change in your readers’ daily habits. But perhaps a reader’s purpose in picking up your book is to simply be entertained.
Writers can effectively fulfill both purposes, but they can’t do so without considering readers’ motivations and needs as well as their own.
Cultivate appreciation for your audience
Communicating through writing is not easy, and it is an act of courage to put our writing into the hands of others. But don’t fear your audience. They are human, just like you. If you feel intimidated by your readers, resist the urge to ignore them, and work to cultivate appreciation and empathy for them instead.
What does my audience need?
How can I demonstrate understanding of their needs?
What are my audience’s concerns regarding this subject?
What is most important to my audience?
How can I help my audience?
Will my audience understand my purpose in writing to them?
Do I understand why my audience might disagree with my message?
It may seem difficult to develop empathy for your readers if you know you are writing to an adversarial audience or one that by nature is highly critical (e.g., proposal reviewers, officers of the court). In this case, you may want to admit your audience into the writing process at a later stage. Focus on the subject and purpose of your document to write your draft, and once your draft is done, think deeply about your audience, get to know them, and read your draft from their perspective.
Your audience is your ally
Writing is an amazing, powerful, complex form of communication. When you write, you build a bridge of discourse between you and the reader. It is not the reader’s job to build that bridge or leap across the gap of understanding between you—it’s yours.
Learn to appreciate your audience and include them in your writing process. Put these exercises into practice, and you will see your writing become more focused, more effective, and easier to produce.
Remember that your audience—even an adversarial one—is never the enemy. Unclear, ineffective communication is your common foe, and by including your reader in the writing process, your audience will become your ally.
I am a freelance writer–editor with 10 years’ experience in crafting and polishing medical and healthcare materials, business communications, and web publications. I also offer medical writing services, such as copywriting web and newsletter content for healthcare providers and transforming raw interview notes and behavioral observations into shining prose for assessment reports.