The advice to “know your audience” has become so essential to the writing process, so revered by the writing advice-givers, that it should probably be memorialized in granite at the Writing Advice Hall of Fame (if there were such a place). I’ve muttered a word or two myself about knowing one’s audience in workshops I’ve led or writing advice articles I’ve written. Writers who don’t know their audience are doomed to failure. That’s the gist of the advice.

But what does it mean to “know thy audience”? Especially if you hardly have an audience at all?

That’s the first problem with using the word “audience.” Audience implies a crowd operating as one unit. An audience is usually passive, except in the case of “audience participation.” Audience also conjures a large group of people, not the one or two readers a lot of us start out with. (Hi, Mom and Dad!)

And now I’ve gone and given away the word I’d rather use in place of audience. What if we said, “Know your readers” instead? Would that change the advice? Readers are active participants in our work. They are literary partners. They complete the writing process with their textual engagement. We know they’ll work at it, so we leave them clues, hide little secrets, play with our words to inspire them rather than bore them.

Still, do we always know who is reading? Not always. We do when we share a story with our writing group or turn in a classroom assignment. In those cases, we have readers we know and can talk to. On our blogs, we can study analytics and make certain assumptions based on the people leaving comments and sharing our work on social media. Sometimes, some of you — my readers — send me an email or talk to me at the grocery store. You tell me which posts you like, you answer questions I’ve asked, you share your own stories that are similar to mine. I get to know you in the process.

But you are not all alike. No two readers, no two audience members, are exactly the same. They won’t read the same way; they won’t understand the same things. If by knowing your audience you really mean recognizing the basic demographic of a magazine or highlighting the general interests based on a blog’s subject, that’s fine. But let’s call that “writing on topic” or capturing the right “tone” or “style.”

But when we talk about knowing our audience, I think we mean something entirely different. I think what we really mean is “remember that other people will read this.” Sometimes, that’s not true. When you are writing in your diary purely for yourself, you can write however you want. But if someone else is going to read what you write — even just one person — then that changes everything.

“Good writing serves the reader, not the writer. It isn’t self-indulgent,” Ann Handley says in Everybody Writes. “Good writing anticipates the questions that readers might have as they’re reading a piece, and it answers them.”

Of course, some writers have this romantic notion that we write just for ourselves. Do a Google search of “I wrote this book for me,” and in interview after interview, you’ll hear authors say this kind of thing. A friend recently reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s New York Times Bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, which she wrote “without imagining that millions of people would ever read it,” she says on her website.

I’m not saying they’re liars. In fact, quite the opposite. A lot of us start out writing just to “hear” ourselves think. We leave out facts because we already know them. We don’t describe the setting because we see it every day. We make illogical leaps because the argument seems airtight and linear to us.

But if we go back and reread what we’ve written, this time remembering that other people will read it, too, then we begin to see what’s missing. We fill in the blanks, we rearrange the paragraphs, we get rid of the extra words that mask what we’re trying to say.

“Swap places with your reader,” Handley suggests. “Be a skeptic of your own work. Get out of your own head, and into your reader’s or your customer’s. Relentlessly, unremittingly, obstinately think of things from your reader’s point of view, with empathy for the experience you are giving them.”

Which leads me to the best advice I know about readers: write with a particular reader in mind. Draft your words so that one person — your brother, your aunt, your neighbor, your writing buddy, your editor — will understand. Then, if possible, ask her to read what you’ve written.

The best way to know your audience? Create readers of people you already know.

Put that on a plaque and frame it, all you writing advice-givers.

everybody writes coverFor the next few weeks, I’m writing my Resources for Writers based on principles from Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content. If you’d like to read along with me, pick up a copy of Ann’s book at your local library or bookstore. Or, if you’d like to support what I do here, order a copy using my Amazon affiliate link.