Imagining Your Reader

Most mass communication originates in solitude.

Before delivering a public speech, pressing the Post button on a text-based article or blog, delivering an audio podcast or webinar, or taping a video, the creator of the material sits alone and ponders what they will communicate.

During this alone time, a content creator should also be thinking of an audience. For authors, since you are rarely present when your book is read, imagining a reader is difficult.

Or at least it should be.

If you find it easy to imagine your audience, then you are likely homogenizing individuals into a stereotypical mass audience, which is not an audience at all. There is no such thing as a book for everyone, just like there isn’t a book for all women, men or teens, except for the Bible–and that needed divine inspiration from the Holy Spirit.

For the mortals among us, the only effective way to write is to imagine a very specific audience and write to them.

Example of This Concept

If a guest speaker comes to your church, they deliver a well-organized and rehearsed presentation which is good in many ways, except for one. It is a generic message the speaker could deliver at any church, on a variety of occasions, and probably has. It’s an all-of-you message.

But when your pastor or another home-grown speaker stands in front of your church, they see specific people they know personally. Their words are for that particular group. It’s an all-of-us message, which is far better, as it shows the speaker knows the audience.

Both types of communication have their place, but the best speakers, just like the best writers, tailor their message for the audience. They make their listeners or readers feel like the message is just for them, and the way this starts is by imagining a specific reader.

When you are afraid of missing someone, you miss everyone. This happens when aiming too wide.

Imagine Your Reader

Think of one person you know by name who would benefit from your writing.

Think of one person in Scripture by name who is most like your target audience.

Use some technique to continually remind you of both people throughout your writing process, whatever works for you.

Write to them.

NOTE: This is an exercise to keep you focused during the writing process. You don’t name someone in your book unless it is appropriate!

Final Note about Audience

I know many authors want their Christian-message books read by unbelievers. But writing for unbelievers makes you guilty of the same stereotyping mentioned above, which is rarely effective. The recommendation to name a person still holds.

Maybe this isn’t a problem for you, but it is always a good idea to check your compass occasionally to see if you are still headed in the right direction.

Thinking of a specific person you are writing to is simply good discipline, keeping you focused, aware, and human.

After all, every reader of your book has a name.

12 Responses to Imagining Your Reader

  1. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 24, 2021 at 6:40 am #

    Can’t get in any head but my own, and since no-one was writing the stuff I was looking for, I decided to write it.

    Maybe not the best marketing move, but the writing was sincere, and the process was treasured.

    I’d say I write for Christ Himself
    (ain’t that, now, the best of hooks!),
    but I’ll bet that on His shelf
    and lots and lots and lots of books.
    Or should I speak to Bubba Joe
    (I just fixed his car),
    and try to tell him not to go
    spend each night in a bar?
    So many choices, ‘cross the land,
    to whom I might direct my words,
    but thinking, now, I understand
    what I should be aiming towards,
    and the revelation I will heed
    is “write the books you’d want to read”.

  2. Tim Shoemaker June 24, 2021 at 6:47 am #

    Really good, Dan!! I definitely write to a specific person or a small group–but it can be easy to lose that focus at times. Your post today reinforced that practice of writing to a specific audience, and will help me be even more dedicated to it. Thanks, Dan!

  3. Susan Sage June 24, 2021 at 6:50 am #

    This is good. I have heard this advice before, but it wasn’t until I read these words, “Think of one person in Scripture by name who is most like your target audience.” that I knew for sure who my audience was. Once I saw her, I saw the other women who are just like her. Thank you, Dan. This is very encouraging.

  4. Kristen Joy Wilks June 24, 2021 at 7:43 am #

    Hmmm … I am picturing a group of readers in my head. Three little boys listening to a story as their mom or dad reads aloud. One boy is sitting snuggled in his mom’s lap, one boy is bouncing around on his beanbag chair with the action. He waves his arms and kicks his legs and wields an imaginary sword. The last boy runs circles around the room as he listens, down the hall, he jumps and lands on a recliner, he leaps off and delicately lands on the back of the couch, he runs across the back of the couch, angles off the windowsill, and lands on the floor. He does the same circuit again and again all while listening to the story. Yep, my audience is active, loves action and animal and humor and while they appreciate emotion, character growth, and a spiritual arc it better not get preachy!

  5. Leigh DeLozier June 24, 2021 at 9:12 am #

    As Susan said, your advice to “Think of one person in Scripture by name who is most like your target audience” was powerful for me. One woman immediately came to mind but I’ll ponder it a bit more. Sometimes the obvious answer might be good, but one that goes deeper might be better — and give me an even better understanding of my reader. Thanks for making me think!

  6. Sherry Carter June 24, 2021 at 12:40 pm #

    I write Bible studies for women and it’s easy for me to fall into the “all women” trap. I, too, love your suggestion about choosing a woman in Scripture. Once God guides me to her, I will use that understanding to choose a woman as my target.

  7. Dennis L Oberholtzer June 24, 2021 at 1:39 pm #

    So True. But what if the audience in interested in what I have, but the publisher wishes to make it into something which takes away the main issue? For instance, I have over 100 pictures which are needed to prove my theory. And another about fifty pages of charts. I know they are most important to tie the theme together, but how does a publisher handle such a “different” work?

    • Dan Balow June 24, 2021 at 2:55 pm #

      This is a different issue than I addressed today. There are many variables in what you mention, but regardless of what you write, you should have a good idea of its intended audience. A publisher might have a different idea, but they wouldn’t agree to publish it unless that issue was resolved beforehand.

      All that is before they discuss pictures and charts.

  8. Tiffany Price June 24, 2021 at 2:54 pm #

    This is a great exercise to employ in the writing process. I’m currently working on a new project, and I have outlined and brainstormed quite a few essential components, but I have neglected the need to identify my reader. Thank you for this reminder!

  9. Jason Sautel June 24, 2021 at 9:32 pm #

    This is so good! When I write, I often think about Saul of Tarsus and the Apostle Paul- and write to both of them….. I know, same guy.

    I don’t write in a way that teaches him what God already breathed out through him. Instead, I try to write in a way that Scripturally encourages the man whose flesh struggled even as he continued to lean on the Lord’s strength.

    I love to encourage by being transparent and letting the person I am writing to know that they aren’t alone, even though this fallen world full of broken people will often make them feel like they are.

  10. Arloa Ten Kley June 25, 2021 at 8:43 am #

    Thank you, Dan. I’ve often heard that I need to write to a specific audience, but how to pick that audience (without becoming generic) was often left out. Blessings!

  11. July 9, 2021 at 11:37 pm #

    I did similar – writing specifically for a small group of people in my first book, Jodie’s Story. It worked – the book was published and sold – is still selling 30 years later – very well.

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