Don’t worry about the audience, but do worry about audience

But here’s the contradiction. While Zinsser tells writers not to worry about what readers might think, he also advises writers to work hard to keep readers’ attention, to not let them get distracted in the middle of a paragraph. “The reader is an impatient bird, perched on the thin edge of distraction or sleep.” So we must also be aware of and concerned about readers.

How can we do both at once? How can we not worry about readers and worry about readers at the same time? By realizing that two different issues are involved. One, he says, is a matter of attitude. The other a matter of craft.

Be willing to express your opinions or interests or personality regardless of what others may think (attitude). And do so in a way that engages and compels them to read on even if they disagree with you or may not have a natural interest in the topic (craft).

The best podcasters think a lot about audience. While their choice of topic may be their own, the audience influences how they cover the subject. They make assumptions about what their audience knows and doesn’t know, what may need to be explained and what doesn’t. They consider what might motivate their listeners and what might seem boring. 

Likewise, the best writing comes when authors follow Zinsser’s apparently paradoxical advice. How do we keep our audience in mind and not keep our audience in mind? We do it at different times. When we are first picking a topic, researching, drafting, and smashing down ideas on the page, we need not give one thought to the audience. We just do our best to get into a flow. 

But later, after we’ve got the semblance of a draft together and go back to rework, refine, and edit our own material, then we keep our audience in mind. Zinsser himself hints at this. When talking about whether to put in humor, he writes “If it amuses you in the act of writing, put it in. (It can always be taken out, but only you can put it in.)” That’s the key – we can always take it out later. We just shouldn’t take it out early in the process. 

When we revise, we need a guide, a grid, a set of criteria for what to leave in and what to take out. Sometimes too much of a good thing can make a piece fail. We may think all the illustrations are spot-on, but too many of them (or the wrong ones or even too many good ones) can put readers off. 

How do we determine what may work for our audience and what may not? We will have a hard time figuring that out with a big amorphous readership in mind, thus the earlier suggestion to make it specific. Having one person in mind is a great way to do that – someone who is not on the fringes of the kind of people you want to reach but someone at the center.

Who should that person be? How do we choose? Another way to phrase the question, Who is your audience? Is this: Who do you want to reach and why?  That is, What is motivating you to write? What have you learned that you want others to know? Who could benefit from it? A friend? A coworker? Someone you worship with? A customer? A family member?

Write for that person, and let it be your gift to them.
from “Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art, and Spirituality” by Andrew T. Le Peau, Intervarsity Press