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Knowing your audience – five questions

Nathanael is a designer within the corporate world, an artist in the real world, and a sometime writer in other worlds. It’s great to have him join us here at
kilobox communiqué.

As in all fields of communication, many writers fail to know the audience that they are writing for. It’s not a question of these writers being bad at understanding the people reading their work, because in most cases you do not need an understanding beyond the capabilities of the average person. Rather it’s more often than not a failure to think about it long and hard enough. Or in fact, at all.

  1. Does the sort of person who is interested in this subject generally have a vocabulary that includes these terms?
  2. Does the technical level of the piece mean that the reader is likely to feel overwhelmed by jargon or will they feel patronised by the simplistic explanations?
  3. Does the fan of the genre you are writing in expect the twist you are putting in here?
    • Will they accept the twist, or will it anger them for breaking some sort of rule such as the internal consistency of your world?
  4. Will the people I am writing the article for appreciate the tone and subject matter, or will it antagonise them?
  5. Am I insulting the very people I am hoping to win over in the misguided notion that someone will come over to my way of thinking because I ridiculed their way of thinking enough for them to realise the foolishness of it?

These are not difficult questions, but they are questions that are often forgotten about in the rush to capture the words we wish to communicate, thus hampering our ability to convey their actual meaning.

Most authors will make assumptions about their audience; it’s a given since most authors are not really in a position to run what is essentially a market research study on their readers. I’m not going to tell you that as a writer you shouldn’t make assumptions about your readership, because not only would that be impractical but it would be illogical; if you have any readers you do not or have not spent a lot of face time with, you are going to make assumptions about them. The larger your audience, the more general your assumption have to become. By all means gather market research data on them if you find it useful, but unless you’re actually selling something such as advertising, subscriptions or a book, it’s not essential.

If you’re writing a piece of fiction with a young female protagonist investigating crime whilst trying to juggle the responsibilities of school and her cheerleading squad, you have to understand that your natural readership is going to consist of a certain type of person. Largely teenage girls who probably have some sort of interest – be it practical or aspirational, in cheerleading. This will also be a group who will be able to relate to the trials and tribulations of also going to school.

If your fiction work is another young female protagonist investigating crime whilst juggling school, but rather than her cheerleading squad, it’s her science club, all of a sudden your natural readership is completely different. Sure the main part of it will be teenage girls as before, but most of your readers will be more inclined to scientific interests, and many of them will feel in some way socially excluded from the popular school culture that surrounds American high school cheerleaders.

Unless you do something specific within the writing to change it, those are your readerships. Don’t sell them short by writing something that they won’t comprehend, won’t empathise with, or just plain old won’t be interested in. Don’t make your cheerleader crime fighter solve a puzzle by discovering and exploiting a flaw in the calculations of the corrupt construction firm owner, who is covering up the existence of a Native American burial ground where he is building a new skyscraper. Make her sneak around, take photos, and do some good old fashioned detective work before bringing in the authorities with proof of the crime. Unless you’ve established early on (and sold it as such) that this is a kick ass cheerleader who will take on the criminals in hand to hand combat – in which case you’re probably looking at the audience for the alternative example once they’ve grown up and left high school, then don’t kick it into that gear. Your audience will probably feel a little cheated, and their parents will probably complain because they’re committing acts of violence on human beings.

If you’ve established that there are vampires and werewolves early on, and your antagonists turn out to be supernatural enemies, then by all means do so. You may however find that your natural readership is different, and already familiar with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sorry.

Understand who you are writing for, and write accordingly. Furthermore, market it to that group. That solves a lot of problems.

[Nathanael]

About the author

Nathanael is a professional artist, working in a visual communications field. Amongst his many jobs are interface design and marketing materials where he has to evaluate who the end user is, and who the target audience is.

About Nathanael

Nathanael Rouillard is a full time artist who rarely gets any time to produce any art outside of his office. He spends most of his free time playing games of one variety or another, and attempting to watch as much high quality film and television as possible. He tries to indulge an interest in amateur photography, but spends more time thinking about what stylistic choices he should make than actually attempting any pretty pictures. Besides which, he will see beauty in things where others see only ugliness. This probably explains his occasionally dark sense of humour.

8 thoughts on “Knowing your audience – five questions

  • A great post Nathanael.

    Five very good questions to bear in mind there, and it’s great to see some advice for fiction writers. I love the crime-fighting cheerleader scenario – I almost want to read the book!

    Thank you :)

  • Yeah, but I considering the errors I caught, for such an obvious one to get past me instead of the minor ones that fewer people would have noticed is… well… typical of me.

    If I made a living as a writer I’d have to pay someone to be my 24/7 proof reader!

    :P

  • Well if it helps any, I didn’t notice – I was too busy enjoying your piece.

    I think we often notice the details and not the bigger things – not seeing the wood for the tress and all that.

    Don’t let it worry you, you’ve written a great piece that I’m sure all Wedge’s readers will enjoy.

  • Great post.

    From a fiction standpoint, you are absolutely spot-on. I have certain expectations of specific genres. It can be exciting and interesting when an author finds a “new” way to tell an “old” story. But they DO need to tread lightly. It’s a fine line between leading your audience to a new place and just knocking the wheels out from under them.

    From a persuasive writing point of view, knowing your audience and their expectations is no less important.

    Coincidentally, I’ve just posted a blog about a company that found itself in hot cyber-water this weekend because it did NOT spend enough time thinking about its target audience and their expectations and opinions. They totally dropped the ball on your question #4.

  • Oh god yes they did.
    It always manages to amaze me in this day & age when they drop the ball like that.

    Obviously it’s still going to happen from time to time no matter what, but it really shouldn’t happen anywhere near as often as it does.

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