Who Are You Writing For?

Who are you writing your book for? If you don’t know who your reader is, how can you write your book? It seems obvious, but it’s a question that constantly comes up when I speak with new authors. In fact, I’ve talked about just this subject twice in the past two days.

The first answer to the question is always you. You are writing your book for you. But if you are the only person the book appeals to, your sales will be mighty slim.

So before you begin to write, ask yourself a few questions. Be sure to write down the answers and save them. You may want to refer back to them throughout the writing process.

Who is your reader?

If you’ve spent any time at all in business you’ve heard phrase, “find your target market.” As a writer, your target market is your reader. When I ask the writers I work with who their target reader is, the most common answer I receive is “everyone,” or some variation of the word, such as “every parent,” or “everyone who likes to cook,” or some other answer equally as broad.

Some people try to narrow it down a bit: “My audience is women,” (okay, you’ve narrowed it to half the population) or “My audience is women between the ages of 30 and 60,” (now we’ve got it to one quarter of the population). All of these answers are just too expansive to define your true target reader.

Before you begin to write your book, come up with as detailed a description of your target reader as possible. The more you know about your reader, the better equipped you will be in writing a book that they will be interested in buying and reading.

Is your audience experts on your subject, or are they beginners in the field? Knowing the answer will help you adjust your vocabulary to the correct level. A book written for beginners that does not explain complex vocabulary specific to your subject will quickly turn off readers who are unfamiliar but want to learn.

Don’t think that this question is only for writers of nonfiction. Fiction writers must also think about the age and vocabulary of their readers. A “read-to-me” book, or one written for four- and five-year-olds who do not yet read should have a higher vocabulary than a first reader. Why? Because a young child’s listening vocabulary and comprehension are greater than the words he can actually read for himself. Science fiction and fantasy are two other fiction genres that often require the writer to explain a new or different technology or world to the reader. If your characters live in a world that different from our own, you must explain the rules of the world to the reader.

A second question to ask about your readers is their generation. Are they teenagers or over age 50? Different age groups have their own slang and jargon or catch phrases, their own touchstones and icons. If your audience is under age 35, referencing Frank Sinatra or Kennedy’s assassination won’t stir them; better to talk about Justin Timberlake and the World Trade Center, instead, and if they are under 25 Timberlake is passé, go for Justin Bieber —and who knows who or what the iconic incidents and figures of the next generation will be.

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about by now. Understanding who your reader is has a huge impact on how you write your book. Here are a few questions to ask yourself about your target readers.

What is their gender?  What is their age? What is their income level? What are their hobbies? What other books do they read? How much do they know about the subject of your book; i.e., is this written as a book for beginners or for experts?

I often suggest that a writer think of a specific person who would enjoy reading his book. As you write, keep this person in mind. How would he react to what you have written? Would he understand the explanation or description you just wrote or would he be bored and find it too elementary? Would he chuckle or gasp in horror at the right places?

Sit down and write a description of your target reader. This person can be someone you know or it can be a fictionalized composite character. Either way, just make your description as detailed as you can. When you work on your book, picture this person sitting at the table across from you. Write as if you are having a conversation with him.

Your Subject and Your Theme

How does the theme of your book differ from the subject? The subject is the topic of your book—fly fishing in the Great Lakes, for example, or how to sell more widgets. Your theme is the message you want your readers to remember. It is your purpose, the reason you are writing your book.

Remember those high school English classes where you had to write compositions on the theme of exciting books such as Billy Budd or The Crucible? No one could have hated writing those essays as much as I. Maybe that’s why it took me years to admit that all writing—no matter how short or how long—must have a theme or purpose. If you don’t have a purpose, why write at all? Once I learned this lesson, I became a better writer.

Remember, your theme is different than the subject of your work. Your subject is the topic that you are writing about. Your theme is why you are writing about it. To find your theme ask yourself these questions: What knowledge would I like my readers to gain from reading my book? What do I want them to think or feel? What actions would I like them to take after reading my book?

There are many reasons for writing a book. You may want to persuade your readers toward your opinion, introduce a new idea or help them to gain knowledge of a product or process. A few examples will explain it best:

  •  The theme of a book on salesmanship might be: “It is easy to increase your sales closing ratio by using these ten steps.”
  • A book designed to introduce beginners to economic theory could be: “Making sense of supply and demand is important for an understanding of both global and local economics.”
  • A life coach might have this theme: “Whether large or small, each of the choices we make has an impact on our lives.”
  • A theme for a fiction book aimed at middle school readers might be, “all actions have consequences.”
  • A theme for an adult fiction book could be, “with compassion comes forgiveness.”

Take a few minutes and write down the theme of your book.

Notice that each of the themes that I used in the earlier examples was only one sentence long. How long was your theme?

The first time you write the theme for your book it will probably take you a paragraph or even two. That’s an excellent place to start, but if it has taken you that many words to describe your theme, you are either not clear about what your purpose is, or you are attempting to include too many themes or purposes for your book. I call this the “everything including the kitchen sink syndrome” in book writing.

Take a look at your paragraph and try to condense it. If you are having trouble, ask a friend to help you. Rewrite it, cutting out any ideas that are not essential. Don’t stop until you can state your theme in one to two sentences.

Take the time before you start writing your book to answer these questions, and you will find that the actual writing is much easier because you are more focused.

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