Every year a report or article appears in the media that show how the youth of our world don’t know very much. They are not speaking of ignorance as in stupidity, but in “not knowing” things simply because they have no first hand experience.
Beloit College in Wisconsin has a running list going well into the future of things that college freshman know, or don’t know. A link to the most current list is at the end of this article.
From this year’s list, some I find interesting are:
- Russia has never been a communist country. (What’s a Cold War?)
- Amazon is a company you order stuff from, not a river.
- Jimmy Carter is a nice elderly man who does good things for people.
- They’ve always been able to download music.
- Store has no website? Why would I shop there?
- PC means personal computer, not something about your politics.
- The only significant examples of labor unrest in business have been in professional sports.
The point to make here is when writing to a younger audience, you need to see the world from their perspective and if you write about things like wanted-posters in the post office, pay phones, “home” phones, phone books and classified ads, they will have no idea what you are talking about, unless they are fans of twenty year-old reruns of Law and Order or Seinfeld.
Don’t assume someone naturally knows everything you know. They don’t.
Writing to any audience, not for people just like you, is an obstacle course filled with challenges that could make your work at best not publishable or at worst, laughable to the audience you are trying to reach.
Since the first rule of effective communication is to “know your audience” you need to make some attempt to see things through the eyes of that audience.
Even more important are the examples you use to illustrate your points and the quotes you use. Most tweens and teens have only vague recollections of anyone over the age of 25. Charles Spurgeon? Mark Twain? Who?
Of course, differences vary depending on the kind of book you write (fiction, non-fiction) and age of the target reader. You wouldn’t think of inserting 19th century examples into a 20th century novel, yet many authors do just that when we assume everyone of every age understands everything that preceded it.
Of course, all this changes if you are doing a period piece, but you might need to include a list if definitions in the introduction so everyone has some idea what you are talking about.
Consider a few simple examples:
Pay Phones – in ancient days before time began, people put coins into a telephone in order to make a call. I have no idea where the coins went.
Tube Televisions – They were once smaller and much, much heavier. If they stopped working you had them repaired. Some families only had one!
Audio Cassette and VHS Tapes – Things found primarily in landfills.
Newspapers – information from yesterday was assembled, printed, folded and thrown on your driveway by a neighbor kid on a bicycle and you paid for it. (Imagine paying for news!) Newspaper editors were once the most influential people in the society.
A final application of this “know your audience” exercise reveals the reason what we publish in one country does not necessarily sell well in other cultures or countries.
Books written in English are sold worldwide. If you have a message for the entire world and expect your reader to have a thorough understanding of baseball, grocery stores and cul-de-sacs, be prepared for some basic questions about what you wrote.
Not that you don’t write about those things that connect with western English-speaking audience, but don’t expect your book to go international if the content doesn’t cross oceans well.
Or read by teenagers who know little of anything prior to 1997.