Knowing Your Audience isn’t About Marketing

Sometime back I read a blog post by an indie author complaining about the bigotry of traditional publishers against the novella. He began by stating, “Size doesn’t matter, and if you think it does, then this article isn’t for you.”

So… who’s it for then? Those who already agree with you?

It wasn’t a well-written complaint. Some of his points made sense, but he made claims that seemed naïve—“I’ve never met a person who didn’t like novellas!”—and contradictory—“People don’t pick books by size. I personally like stories that only take me an hour to read.”

Rants aren’t as bad as we make them. Anger can discredit someone, easily making you appear emotional and foolishly arrogant, but they can also be fun, exciting, and empowering. There’s nothing wrong with a well worded rant, and it can even be sexy, charismatic. But you should be aware if you’re trying to make the choir laugh, trying to persuade a hostile audience, or just give information to the overwhelmed. How you broach that same topic will be different, as will your gauge of success.

Most blogs by new authors ignore who their audience is likely to be; they write for the impressionable minds of those new and eager to learn when, in most cases, their readers are the intermediate or even experienced folks who enjoy discussing writing and dig past On Writing and The Elements of Style to find the opinions of those less mainstream.

Who are you writing for? Because arguing with the choir and making off putting jokes at the expense your readers are easy mistakes to avoid if you simply consider who’s reading and your intent in posting.

It tells you how to talk to people.

There’s quite a few—at least half—of amateurs (and experts) who don’t like to be told what to do. Bossing them around with “Don’t do this,” and “Please don’t do that,” are likely to alienate them. I also think we have an obligation to check our work when advising people new to the business as well. I find most commonly repeated advice problematic and counterproductive; if your dialogue is terrible, punctuation and dialogue tags are the last thing you should be thinking about.

While offering advice, it’s useful to consider who you’re speaking to. There are some people, like me, who will take even small and seemingly superficial complaints seriously as long as they feel genuine, but get resistant at condescension and bossiness. If you seem like you don’t realize lots of people have a different opinion than you then you’ve lost a little bit of credibility with me. Partially out of practicality because it’s not uncommon that my feedbackers all drastically disagree with each other, and the people who believe their opinion is everyone’s are worse at showing me their perspective, more likely to take offense at questions.

But there are others who consider kindness, diplomacy, and respect as an act of weakness or submission, and advice without aggression and assertiveness will also lose credibility for them. Everyone’s filters for truth is different, but critiques always go better if you attempt to be persuasive and consider the human in front of you.

Knowing your audience is the same thing, except that it involves the many instead of the one. When I tell people to consider who they’re writing for, many of them balk pretty aggressively. At first I didn’t understand why until I realized that “know your audience” reads to some as “restrict yourself to a certain demographic for business purposes.”

Having a certain audience in mind doesn’t necessarily mean pandering to them, just understanding them.

Having a clear idea of the kind of the person reading just factors in how you tackle information. If you’re dealing with a fresh-minded writer with no prior experience in the writing world, how you advise them to restrict their adverbs is going to be different than when dealing with someone who has already heard it and already has a stubborn opinion. One will be more explanatory than argumentative, (Here’s the benefits) the other will be more personal than informative (Here’s situations it has worked for me).

You can say it’s not your job to be convincing, you just are there to deliver the information and if they want to be an asshat about it, that’s their own ambition, but I perceive that as a lazy and counterproductive stance to have. If you honestly want to help them and all it takes is a brief reflection on how you speak to them, what’s the downside? If the blogger doesn’t want to help them, then it seems like they’re just trying to get off on a power trip.

Plus there’s selfish motives to work on your persuasion. Just by stepping back and putting yourself in your readers’ shoes, you’ll find that making successful decisions is easier and you will gain more respect and authority from your peers.

Yes, you can get yourself pigeonholed.

Sometimes your audience is restrictive. If you start to be successful as a science-fiction writer, you might find that your loyal fans throw a hissy fit at your new historical romance. When you know you’re going to do something that your audience doesn’t like, should you not do it?

Unfortunately, there is no right answer. Sometimes you should do what you want despite the backlash. Sometimes you shouldn’t. Sometimes you can find a way to have your cake and eat it too. But it’s useful to not blind yourself to your audience’s potential reaction merely because you don’t want to hear it or don’t agree with it. Even if you do decide to ignore their wishes, you’ll be prepared for the reaction and handle it better.

Knowing your audience is understanding that no book has ever been recognized as genius by everyone. Shakespeare, James Joyce, Hemmingway, Charles Dickens, Kerouac, and even J.K. Rowling all have their haters. It’s understanding that writing well isn’t binary. It’s understanding that the obvious complaint is not always the issue, and finding the subtle reasons something doesn’t work requires a consistent measuring stick.  

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