Imaginary Audience: 6 Tips on Envisioning Your Readership

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One of the best pieces of advice I've been given is to richly imagine the audience I'm writing for. As a broad abstraction, this advice easily comes off as either useless or obvious. In this article I'm going to try to move away from the abstraction by giving you some concrete advice on how you can use this strategy effectively.

1: Write for One Person

By focusing on an individual person, you can motivate yourself more effectively and more concretely imagine their responses.

I'm a fairly hardcore Nerdfighter (to my friends in Nerdfighteria: DFTBA!). For those out of the loop, Nerdfighteria is a community established as best-selling YA author John Green and his brother Hank Green started vlogging back and forth in 2007. The history of the Vlogbrothers and Nerdfighteria is fascinating, but one of my favorite things about it is that—since it's captured in roughly 1100 videos—you can re-trace and dissect that history.

When asked about the rise of Nerdfighteria, John Green stated that part of the reason for his success was that he focused on one specific person: His brother. Rather than trying to make videos that would please everyone on the internet, he was able to make videos that were meant to make his brother laugh, smile, or think.

As you envision your audience, imagine an individual rather than a group. Don't worry if this person is largely based on someone you know: Each person is representative of the various groups they belong to. By focusing on an individual person, you can motivate yourself more effectively, more concretely imagine their responses, and reach out to an audience that matters more to you.

2: Know Your Contracts

Whatever sort of writer you are, you have a contract with your readers. That contract stems from the reader's expectations of what your book is and should be. This doesn't imply that you must always fulfill the expectations of your reader. In fact, it's important that you surprise your audience at least every once in a while. However, it's important that you stay aware of what expectations are formed by your genre, mode of writing, and the way you introduce your world.

If your book is named Dragons of Westervloom, and you have a cover with a sword-wielding knight, you've created a contract with your reader to give them dragons and battles. You can put those promises off for a long while (I'm looking at you, George R. R. Martin), but if you don't fulfill the contract eventually, you'll alienate readers.

Decide what genre expectations your imaginary reader subscribes to. Envision a reader who is already familiar with the tropes and standards of a genre. What expectations could they reasonably hold you to? Are you giving them what they're after? Are you still manging to surprise them?

3: Imagine the Reading Style

So let's say we have a fantasy reader based on my cousin Ned. He's young-ish. A student. Pretty busy. Doesn't got a lot of time to read for pleasure, which is why he opts for fantasy books instead of denser material. He mostly likes traditional high fantasy, but he's gotten into grittier stuff lately.

What else? Well, does he read the paperback version? The Kindle edition? Does he read for hours on the weekend? Does he go to bed each night by reading? Does he basically just read while on the toilet? The context in which the reader approaches your book can transform the entire experience.

Imagine the ways in which your imagined audience may read your book. Evaluate whether you're enabling and rewarding these reading styles. If you imagine a reader who wants to be fully immersed by your work, are you giving enough concrete details that immersion is possible? If you imagine a reader who reads in short snippets, are you making plot moves sufficiently clear that "burst readers" won't be lost? 

4: Write for Skeptical Readers

Once you've won a reader, they become far more tolerant of your vices. The tricky part is winning them over.

Now that we've imagined a specific breed of reader, we have to raise the stakes a bit. I don't believe any writer should write for their critics; there are always plenty of people who won't like a specific style. If you try to please everyone, you won't please anyone. That being said, you shouldn't write for an audience who already knows and likes your work.

As readers approach new authors, they're often impatient with the story and hesitant to really commit for the long-haul. Assume that your imagined audience will begin from a similarly skeptical position. Once you've won a reader, they become far more tolerant of your vices. The tricky part is winning them over.

Imagine a reader who has never seen your work before and has a limited amount of time and money to spend on books. Your job is to keep them reading, from first page to last. Do you think they'll keep returning to your story?

5: Know Your Platform

Bringing up John Green in Tip #1 was not purely accidental. As a best-selling author, John Green has given a fair deal of good advice on writing. Yet the key to his success in the last few years has often gone unspoken. Nerdfighteria is an audience of roughly 1.6 million viewers who hear from John on a weekly basis.

John has the chance to regularly communicate with his specific audience and receive feedback from them. Nerdfighters are loyal and hard-working, helping to promote John's work across their own networks. The boost in attention to his novel Paper Towns helped John reach the New York Times Bestseller List—a tipping point that led to even greater exposure. (You can search through the Vlogbrothers videos with Paper Towns or The Fault in Our Stars in the title to get a better sense of how the platform was leveraged.) And John has not been unclear about the contributions of the Nerdfighter community. In one video, he says:

I wanted to say thanks to Hank all the Nerdfighters who made it possible for Paper Towns to premiere at number five on the New York Times Bestseller List.

[...]

Hank, I'm not going to get cheesy, I'm not going to say the L word, but I hope you understand that all of this would have been impossible without you. [...] I owe you guys big time.

But it's not just that the Vlogbrothers platform has proved to be a high-impact promotional tool. By knowing the core audience reached through his YouTube platform, John could learn what resonated with that specific audience. He was able to increase the impact of his work over time, with his latest book (The Fault in Our Stars) getting all sorts of awards, a movie deal, and more. Those who know John's YouTube videos can see ways that ideas were "tested" via video and then refined as they worked into his writing.

Now, I'm not trying to make today a John Green holiday. Actually, I feel guilty when I read his work because I like John Green, the person, far more than I like John Green, the writer. But the example of finding a platform and getting to know your specific audience is well worth imitating. Work to develop a long-term platform for your writing, and leverage that platform to gain a better understanding of how your audience responds.

6: Remember the Point

The point of writing is to communicate. The point of writing fiction is to tell a good story. Yet the "literary fiction" community is often vicious. Despite the small size of the "literary readership," we quickly attack any writer who doesn't fit our standards and reject them as "bad writers" while ignoring their successes. (I discuss this at greater length in my defense of Twilight.) We have come to agree on certain styles or tendencies as being signs of true skill, conceiving of writing as a field that can be mastered rather than a craft with a practical function.

Author and semiologist Samuel Delany elaborates beautifully on the question of aesthetics in writing in one of his interviews:

Concepts of what constitute good writing form a conflictual field—highly so and they always have. That is the only reason why, say, simplicity and concision are just as much esthetic virtues as ornamentation and rich ambiguity. It's also why either one, out of control, can become an aesthetic failing—dullness and banality in the one case, and overwrought clutter in the other.

Yet because of certain contracts within the literary community—and the way that the "literary crowd" so often behaves like an especially violent Chihuahua—writers are taught to write for other writers. The most respected journals have an audience comprised almost entirely of writers. If you're thinking this looks suspiciously like a pyramid scheme ... don't worry: You're not the only one seeing the troubling structure. The destructive myths of the literary community often lead to unproductive perfectionism and a literary circle-jerk.

As we learn the craft, we're exposed to other writers and their views in a concrete, active way. It's only after we've succeeded that we really begin to see what our audience of readers looks like. This, perhaps more than any other reason, is why it's vital to envision a specific audience of readers. We must avoid the dangerous default setting of writing only for our fellow writers.

Robbie Blair

Column by Robbie Blair

Robbie Blair is a world-wandering author and poet who blogs about his adventures, the writing craft, and more. He was doomed to write when, at just three years old, his English-professor father taught him the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Robbie has since published more than a dozen creative pieces in literary journals (including Touchstones, Enormous Rooms, Warp + Weave, and V Magazine). Robbie Blair's website is loaded with travel narratives; original creative work;  writerly humor; pretty pictures; writing games, lessons, tips, and exercises; and other uber-nifty™ content.

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Comments

Percy Dlamini's picture
Percy Dlamini from South Africa is reading Everything is Illuminated, The Time Traveler's Wife, The Shadow of The Wind December 5, 2013 - 4:59am

5 star column. My initial 'ideal reader' has been vague, romantic almost, and unrealistic. Your column is so helpful, thank you.

Lori-L's picture
Lori-L December 11, 2013 - 12:23pm

I like the idea that the single person represents a larger audience, my ideal reader often just sounds like myself.  This article pointed out that isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'm glad I read this today.

Terry Clayton's picture
Terry Clayton January 21, 2014 - 10:22pm

Robbie,

Excellent article. I enjoyed it very much. 

I work with science researchers but your points apply. They write the most incredibly dull reports, proposals and scientific articles in large part because they don't imagine any reader at all. All too often they are trying to emulate what they think is 'proper scientific English, which seems to mean long sentences with big workds, multiple clauses and convoluted syntax. When I ask them if that's what they want to read, they get the point and we can start writing Plain English, which they quite like.

Thanks for bringing up an important point about writing in any genre.