Who are you writing for? Who is your audience in your writing? If you're not sure, you're not alone—and discovering your audience will do wonders for your writing.
I teach literature and composition, which means I spend a lot of time helping students with their writing. Many of them want quick ways to make their writing better. They hope I can show them some magic structure that will make writing easier. There’s no such potion.
But there is one tip I share that produces stronger writing almost every time.
Who are you writing for?
For many writers, their formal writing instruction gets in the way of their more creative pursuits. In school, too often students are taught to write canned, formulaic essays that will get them through college entrance exams or high stakes testing. “I need to be objective,” one student tells me, “so that people will believe my argument.”
“Which people?” I ask.
The student blinks at me. “I don’t know. You?”
This student stumbled upon the problem with most formal writing instruction: a lack of authentic audience.
(Now listen. I know the world is full of fantastic teachers who are providing relevant and authentic audiences for student writing. But after twenty years of teaching across the U.S. and overseas, I still see too many students stuck in nondescript five-paragraph essay mode, unable to imagine or engage a real audience.)
When you don’t have an audience in writing
When you aren’t writing for someone specific, it’s easy to be unclear, unstructured, and uncompelling. Who cares if no one is going to see it?
When I had my writers describe their own experiences essay writing, they came up with a good list that included: complex, boring, irrelevant, formal, stuffy, and highly structured.
Academic and nonfiction writing can be all of these things, but I would argue the best writing isn’t boring or irrelevant. Not if the writer is invested in the topic.
So the question becomes, how do I write a stronger essay (or article or story)? And the extended question, how do I let the right amount of personality and voice into my writing to connect?
The answer is the same: Write for a real audience.
A Creative Writing Exercise Around Your Audience
After my student writers described their academic writing, both process and product, I gave them a quick creative writing exercise. They did not have to share it with anyone. My only requirement is that they are honest.
The prompt: Think about a relationship in your life right now that has a problem you haven’t been able to solve yet. Write a letter to that person outlining the problem and exploring possible ways forward.
If they can’t think of a relationship problem, I suggest they expand to a local or community problem that doesn’t have a solution.
As students begin, the room is hushed and busy. There is deep thinking going on. Pens hardly leave the pages, and when I call time, there are always those who want to continue.
I ask students how this exercise differed from their own experiences of academic writing. Immediately, students offer marked differences: I cared about this. It mattered. I didn’t get stuck. It was harder to think through what to write for solutions. I found new ideas.
Students discovered the one shift that boosts motivation and the quality of writing quickly: an audience. In this case, just imagining an audience transformed their experience.
The same is true for fiction writers, too. Stephen King is famous for saying that during his first drafts, he writes for his wife. She is his audience.
Writing for a Public Audience
I talked to Joe Bunting about this a few weeks back, and we both agreed that the moment we started writing in public, we saw our writing progress accelerate.
Writing in private has its place, and I still write in notebooks I plan to burn before I die.
But when you begin to imagine someone out there, a reader, who will absorb your words, suddenly, you’re willing to spend the time needed to get a phrase just right. You search for the metaphor that will resonate with your reader. You take the time needed to make sure ideas flow clearly and logically.
If you’ve been stuck and feel like you’ve stagnated in your writing growth, I challenge you to write for an audience and share your work. You can start with one person or publish weekly posts to a blog that you share.
With time and practice, you’ll discover that you’ve made remarkable progress. All from writing for an audience. Give it a try and share your experiences in the comments.
Have you found you are more invested in your writing when you know you are going to share it with someone or a wider audience? Let us know in the comments.
It's your turn: Think of a relationship in your life that has a problem you haven't yet solved. Write a letter to that person outlining the problem and sharing possible steps forward.
If you'd prefer not to share your letter, tell us how it feels to write for a specific person. What was this experience like? Was it different from other writing experience you've had?
Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers, too!
Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveler with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.