Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Remember the Audience

Jean Schara
©2003, Jean Schara

illiam Zinsser, in On Writing Well, insists you need to write for yourself first—an audience of one.  Ultimately, this is true, but to sell a product you will need to find a balance between the paying audience and your personal style—without compromising your integrity. 

I periodically hear the question "Is such-and-such a topic OK to write about?"  This question usually prompts many follow-up questions, but this article will only cover one:  Who is your audience?  If you are not writing for sale, this question is less important; however, if you expect to receive payment for your work, those paying you determine your readership, both for work already sold or commissioned and for work with an undefined audience.

"Know your audience" is the premiere point driven home in technical writing classrooms everywhere; however, it applies for all writers.  People frequently ask if they should write about a certain topic in their work in progress (WIP).  I always think, "It depends upon your intended audience."

With a consideration for who will read your work, you can write about nearly any subject for a willing audience.  If you have sold your story and are writing for a specific agent, editor, or publisher, then you need to please them before your public will get to read your work.  However, at what point in the writing process must you consider audience?  It depends upon your writing process — but it must take place before submitting your work for publication. 

If you do pre-writing, you might find it helpful to consider your final audience when determining content and tone.  Some people, however, prefer to get their ideas on paper (or into an electronic file) before turning a critical eye toward them.  Others like to produce a near final draft in the first take—writing and re-writing as they go.

If you have sold the piece before writing it, your life will be easier if you research your audience first.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is your audience?

  • What is the purpose of the piece (to inform, to persuade, to entertain)?

  • What are your audience's expectations?

  • How much do they already know about the subject?

  • How much will you, the author, need to explain to them?

  • Do you have all the information they will need?

  • Why should they read what you write?

  • Your writing preferences determine when you act upon those questions.  Consider your reader during your writing, giving it a lot of attention or a little.  As you edit or re-write, incorporate audience consideration into your process.  During the creative process, something may have interested you, but carried you away from your audience.  Editing or re-writing is the time to wrestle these things into line.

    Finally, during critique sessions, listen to your critiquer's comments.  If it is not already included, consider adding an audience section to your critique format—something like "Who do you think the audience is for this piece?"  The answer will help you determine if you have met your goals in addressing your audience.

    If your piece is unsold, you have more options.  Most notably, the opportunity to write the piece of your dreams and then try to match it with a buyer who is looking for just the piece you have written, thus achieving writer nirvana!

    Will that work?  Chances are you will have to adjust your writing for your potential buyer.  Perhaps you have written a sensitive piece about a young, committed gay couple.  You should be able to sell this piece; however, the subject matter will limit your audience.  For instance, this piece is unlikely to sell to the Southern Baptist Convention (even if your couple is Southern Baptist), but it is likely to sell in more markets now than it would have ten years ago. 

    Do your market research.  Perhaps you have written a screenplay or sitcom about aliens living among us in our society.  Of course, this has already been done quite successfully in several iterations—"Mork and Mindy," "Alf," "Third Rock from the Sun," or "Men in Black" to name a few examples.  In each example, we saw a different illustration of the common theme, and clearly, the audience for this material is broader and more receptive than the previous example.  Perhaps you want to write about gay aliens living among us in our society.  Who ever complains about alien sexuality?  This approach might be worth a try. 

    Write your story; just make sure you direct the story you write to your intended audience.  You can do it; you will find a way.  You will know when it happens—your work will sell, and you will be proud of what you produced.


    On Writing Well, William Zinsser, Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc., 1985 (Third Edition), ISBN: 0-06-015409-8.