Any writer who tells you that he/she does not care whether his/her written work finds an audience is a disingenuous writer. Intellectually dishonest.
We all want someone to read what we write, even if it is only one specific person to whom we have addressed a letter or e-mail. Even if we only address our words to a small, select group of readers. Even if we know that our audience will be small in number, but perhaps large in terms of influence, valuable feedback or the ability to secure a broader target audience for us.
I think this is especially true in the context of blogging. Even though many of us will never measure our loyal readers in the millions, hundreds of thousands or even thousands, we would not be clicking that “Publish” button unless we hoped that someone somewhere would happen upon our words and take a few moments to read and consider them.
So this past week, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my audience and the process of sitting down and writing with a particular reader or group of readers in mind.
My writing goals vary from day to day and post to post. Sometimes I just want to have fun and engage in a little silliness such as a meme. Other times, I feel compelled to write about a serious topic of extreme importance to me or someone close to me. Either way, I want someone to not only read what I write, but interact with me in a meaningful way about my contribution to the blogging cacophony.
Different articles may be more or less compelled by a desire to evaluate and organize my own thoughts and feelings — because writing is extremely cathartic, of course — but still, I never write in a vacuum solely for the purpose of engaging in the intellectual exercise. At least not deliberately.
You can find an infinite number of articles on the Internet about “niche” blogging, i.e., the science or art, depending upon your viewpoint, of writing for a specific audience on a particularized target with success measured by the number of subscribers to your RSS feed you amass, the number of Diggs or Sphinns or Stumbles or votes or clicks you accumulate or, in many instances, the amount of money you earn. The latter is all good and well, but for the vast majority of us who do not blog for anything other than personal satisfaction, I think the answer is different than for those who earn their daily bread posting articles and selling advertising.
When I write an article that I really hope will find a large (by my standards, anyway) audience, I find myself hearkening back to my musical theater and marketing roots. I studied both in college and one song from “Gypsy” sums up the approach: “Ya gotta have a gimmick.” In marketing it is known as the hook. Zillions of dollars and countless effort is spent annually studying the most effective way by which to “hook” an audience.
Today, for instance, I was pleased to see that the “hook” I consciously employed worked — at least for one reader. I wanted to write about what happened to our family this past Thursday night: My youngest son was involved in a motor vehicle accident. Fortunately, it was a low-speed impact, he was wearing his seat-belt, and his injuries were very minor. But it was a very long evening that began with a simple phone call in which he announced what had happened. Every parent knows the emotional roller coaster that I rode, even if only for a few seconds. And I confess here that I deliberately sought to manipulate my readers’ emotions for the purpose of hooking them into my writing and compelling them to read my entire article.
I titled the article, “Mom, we were in an accident,” surmising that it would resonate with parents. Next, I mined the common ground theory, beginning the article with this sentence: “Those are the words that every parent fears.” Then I relived the events of that night, starting with my son’s telephone call, writing as I thought about each detail. My goal was simply to take my readers on the ride with me, to have them nodding their heads empathetically as they read and, ultimately, to have them leave comments like this one: “I swear my heart skipped a beat as i read the introduction of this entry.”
It is important never to lie to one’s readers, so I was also careful at the outset to make sure my audience understood the story was going to have a happy ending. But I purposefully strove to make that ending as emotionally powerful as possible — while providing an accurate and truthful account of what happened, of course. For that reason, I deleted a whole section of the article. After I finished writing and began editing, I realized that I did not need to tell my readers every tiny little detail about the evening’s events, explain the nuances of my emotions or even spell out the moral of the story.
Rather, I stepped back and decided to trust my audience. The ability to trust is a distinguishing feature between seasoned and novice writers, I believe. I concluded that my readers are sophisticated and intelligent, and deliberately left the task of “tying it all up with a pretty ribbon” to them.
So I deleted the entire final segment in which I discussed how thrilled and relieved I was when the doctor pronounced my son healthy, if a little banged up, and released us to leave the hospital. I spared my readers the dissertation I had prepared about the importance of wearing seat-belts at all times. I even deleted many of the conversational details, essentially relegating my husband to the status of “supporting player” in terms of the number of words ascribed to him which, in the final analysis made him, in my opinion, an even more important “character” in the story I wanted to tell.
By concluding with a description of his relieved smile, I sought to invoke in every parent reading a memory of similar moments in their own lives and, concomitantly, an acknowledgement of the importance of normalcy in any family dynamic. My discussion of my own son’s dietary habits would, I believed, resonate with parents whose children display their own idiosyncrasies, signaling to their parents that they are, in fact, just fine. I sought to manipulate my readers, in essence, by inspiring them to have a “Me, too!” moment that would allow the story to end on an upbeat note.
In the process, the reader would inherently glean an understanding and appreciation of the importance of safety precautions and breathe a sigh of relief not only because of my own son’s continued well-being, but when reminded of their own children’s good health. My hope was that they would walk away from their computers after reading about our family’s experience and go hug their own children.
Did I succeed? Well, the first comment received was “now I understand why this was under ‘Blog Your Blessings.'” I never specifically mentioned blessings or gratitude in the body of the article, but that reader got the idea!
Another reader said, “I hope your post reminds everyone to buckle up and go slow!”
If it does, I will have succeeded at identifying my audience, drawing them into the story, and communicating its underlying meaning. If not, I had a good time drafting a story on a cloudy Saturday morning.
For whom do you write? How do you ascertain the identity of your target audience? How do you gear your writing to that group? I’ll be anxious to hear about your experiences, as well as your opinions and suggested techniques.