Friday, December 10, 2010

Writing Craft - Know your audience

You’ve heard it a million times: Write what you love.
The reason you hear it so often is that it is sound advice. Not only will your passion come through, but it will also, hopefully, keep you interested in your story during the sometimes grueling editing process.
Another not-so-obvious benefit to writing what you love is that you have an insight to the reader you are writing for: someone just like you.
Once you begin pitching your work, you will probably be asked: Who is the audience?
Let me give you a tip: The absolutely wrong answer is “Everyone.” There is no one book for which the perfect audience is “Everyone.”
Audiences vary by age, gender, education, background, ethnicity, interests, location, etc.
It is important to know who your reader/audience is for two reasons:
1— Marketing (this will be discussed in detail in a later post).
2 —Better writing
Who you are writing for should influence your writing style. A story geared toward teens will have a style different than one aimed at the chicklit crowd. A manuscript with women as the main target readers will probably carry a different tone than one aimed at men. You wouldn’t expect the writing in a popular mystery novel to reflect that of a high-brow lit fic or a historical romance, and you wouldn’t write the same for middle schoolers as you would for middle-aged readers.
Knowing your audience can help you determine the voice, pace, and tone of your story. It can help you make the right language choices, characteristics, quarks, and habits of your characters.
Readers like to read about characters they can relate to in some way. That’s why it is important to think about your readers and their characteristics so they can be properly reflected, even if it is loosely, in your work.
A good portion of the fiction I write is aimed at my girlfriends — thirty-something urban, educated, career women who are worldly, outgoing and current. Like them, my characters tend to have some edge, definitely some snark, and a bit of vulnerability beneath their tough, independent exteriors. The dialogue is quick and direct, as they are. The books I prefer to read also reflect that audience. I like urban lit featuring strong female characters with witty dialogue and fast-paced action. I don’t want female characters to be saved; I want them to do the saving, and maybe a little ass kicking for good measure.
So, if you were writing a story of the “Dude, Where’s My Car?” ilk or a Howard Stern-esque piece, I would not be your target audience. The dialogue and action in such works would be much different than in books I prefer.
That’s why it’s important to keep your target readers in mind and write to their sensibilities.
It can also be beneficial if you get stuck, especially when editing. Want to know what to keep and what to delete or how to word something? Think about your target reader. What would they want to know? What parts of the story would they want in juicy detail and which parts can you mention in passing? What words would they use?
For example, I had a friend who was having problems with the old adage, show don’t tell. We talked about his target audience for this particular piece. Part of the problem was that he didn’t have a defined audience, so he was trying to please everyone, to the detriment of his story. I suggested he think about telling this tale to his buddies. Which parts would he really embellish and which would be glossed over? For instance, how much would he go into detail about the physical fight between friends versus getting ready for a date? And what words would he use to describe the way the woman looked or the sex scene?
Thinking about the reader helps the writer determine what is important, as well as which wording is most appropriate.
Now this doesn’t mean pander to the reader, or that you are limited to reader stereotypes (i.e. – not all female romance readers want to see the phrase “heaving bosoms”). But it is a good tool to keep you on track in terms of voice and style.
So next time you are working on a story, take a few minutes to jot down some words that describe your target audience. It is an exercise that will prove to be worth the effort.