Imagining your reader

In a previous blog, I said it’s usually not a good idea to write with an actual, specific reader in mind. Let’s explore that advice a little deeper.

Actually most authors do write for a specific person, themselves. Remember the title of this blog and the book it will become: “Writing Your Own Way, and in Your Own Voice.” What could be more egocentric than that?

We’re not talking about who will actually read the piece, but whom you picture as you write it. Here are some imagined audiences:
1. Yourself, when you’re writing notes or a diary
2. One person, or a few, such as for a business letter to your department head, who may share it with other staffers
3. A specialized group, such as the 27 other scholars in the world who study Old English riddles
4. The general public, the hardest audience of all to picture.

You would imagine the audience to gauge what they know already, and what you have to explain. You assume you know what they know, but you don’t. My wife Joan drives me crazy starting conversations in the middle, when I don’t know which of the myriad subjects we talk about she’s onto this time. We assume that what’s in our heads is in the heads of our pictured audience. Wrong.

Suppose you’re right about what your pictured reader knows, but except in letters, the audience is usually larger. Your specific targeting may exclude the rest of the audience.

If you’re afraid of the person you picture, you’re likely to write mush. Many writers try to weed out anything their editor will question. They picture him (it’s usually a him) blowing his stack, and they avoid the imagined conflict by writing as blandly as possible. Then they wonder why writing bores them.

[Attention, any editor reading this. If you yell at your writers, they’ll turn in mush and bore you to death.]

Picturing your imaginary reader’s reaction may also make you write nothing at all. Many writers plan to produce a memoir, but they’re waiting for their parents to die first. They imagine how their mother will react when they reveal that she was the worst cook in the history of the world (mine was), or that their father will be offended when they tell how he terrified the family with his determination to pass every other car on the road (mine did). So you don’t even start your autobiography. You may even pre-decease your parents, unpublished.

Someone asked the tennis star Jimmy Connors if he pictured each shot before he hit it. He replied that he pictured himself accepting the trophy. So if you must picture someone as you write, imagine yourself opening an acceptance letter from The New Yorker.

[Whom do you picture as you write? Why?]

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Published in: on August 24, 2009 at 10:18 am  Leave a Comment  

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