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To Understand the Audience You Write for, Create a Reader Story

To Understand the Audience You Write for, Create a Reader Story

Over nearly a decade of writing and editing, I’ve learned one secret that applies to every single thing you write (in any form, for any reason): You have to write for your reader.

Easy, right? Well, a lot of writers unknowingly write for themselves, their editors, their colleagues or even someone else’s reader. You could be making this mistake without realizing it — if you don’t know who your reader (actually) is.

A fundamental principle of good writing, the rhetorical situation, helps you tie everything you write back to this key element: the audience.

What Is the Audience in the Rhetorical Situation?

As you might expect, the audience is who reads what you write. In most of the writing I work with, the audience is a group of people defined by a range of demographics. But it could also be just one person: a colleague who receives your email, a professor who grades your paper or an editor who reads your book proposal.

Understanding your audience is vital to writing something that makes sense to them (and that they, therefore, enjoy, share, purchase, etc.).

How to Define the Audience: Your Reader Story

Borrowing from the way software developers plan projects by first working to understand their end users, I like to define readers with what I call a “reader story.” It’s a simple way to answer these questions:

  • Who are they?

  • What do they know?

  • What do they want?

  • Why do they want it?

To create your reader story, fill in the following statement about the typical person you expect to read your work.

As a [type of person], they want [some goal] so that [some reason].

Like this: As C-suite and other high-level corporate employees, business coach Mindy’s clients want to reduce stress and find work-life balance so they can do their best work while growing families and friendships.

Take a minute to jot yours down, and think about how you as an author can relate to this reader.

How to Write for Your Reader

This reader story should drive every decision you make as you work, because your reader should be at the center of everything you write. Return to it as you write to answer questions about how to speak to your reader, how to organize information, where to distribute your piece and more that will make it a success.

As you create your reader story, be careful not to fall into this common trap (I’ve definitely been there): You decide what you want to write, then develop a fantastical “ideal reader” who will absolutely love every word of it.

Sound familiar? Yeah, I spent years doing this.

A lot of writing advice encourages you to define this ideal reader… but forgets to mention they need to be actual readers. If your ideal reader isn’t real, no one will read what you write.

Instead of deciding what to write and defining a reader for it, start by defining your reader and writing for them.

To test your reader story, try to name five real people you know who fit it. How would you expect them to react to your writing? (And, ‘hem, would they actually read it?)

If people you know aren’t your audience, do some research. Who reads romance novels or buys online courses about publishing ebooks? Use what you learn to create your reader story.

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