Meet Your Reader

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.

Click here for the Beloit College Mindset List for 2015


12 Responses to Meet Your Reader

  1. Avatar
    Jackie Layton October 27, 2015 at 4:35 am #

    I’m not sure which of those is most shocking.

    We have an eighteen year old young man at work, and he’s not scared to attempt anything on the computer. If I question him about breaking the computer, he just gives me a look that immediately makes me feel ancient.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Avatar
    Jeanne Takenaka October 27, 2015 at 5:50 am #

    It’s amazing how different the mindsets are between generations. I guess knowing who our target audience is helps us to know what and how to convey aspects of our story in a relevant way.

    I’m thinking on this for my current books. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Dan!

  3. Avatar
    Debra L. Butterfield October 27, 2015 at 5:51 am #

    There were items on that 2015 list I had no clue about (I’m over 50), so that really drives home your point about knowing your audience. I bookmarked the Beloit site as a resource. As an editor, I’m sure their lists will come in handy.

  4. Avatar
    Betsy Baker October 27, 2015 at 7:45 am #

    Thanks for the heads-up, Dan! It’s good to be reminded that each generation grows up with a new version of “normal.” I’ll need to rethink how to evoke the isolation of different parts of the world before by cell phones, Skype and Face time, and email.

  5. Avatar
    Betsy Baker October 27, 2015 at 7:47 am #

    Sorry about the extra “by” in the last sentence.

  6. Avatar
    Bill October 27, 2015 at 8:13 am #

    Thanks for a much needed reminder.

  7. Avatar
    Carol Ashby October 27, 2015 at 8:41 am #

    I think your point about generational experiences of technology is very well taken. My second PC was an LSI11. The power supply and bus were in a rack-mount box (24”x36”x9”). All the boards (motherboard, memory, I/O, etc.) were separate and plugged into the bus. Each board came with posts soldered to key connection points. An instruction manual told you which post should connect to which, and you used a wirewrap tool to physically make the connections between posts before the system would work. Sometimes you made daisychains. The LSI11 was a huge advance over the PDP8 since you didn’t have to toggle in the boot sequence by hand. Other than Andrew, I’m not sure who among your regular readers would have ever experienced a PC that way, and many of the terms above might seem foreign. This example might be a bit extreme, but it certainly illustrates the evolution of technology since 1980. It is so much easier to flip open the laptop, push on, and wait a few seconds for the desktop to appear. On the other hand, I could fix the LSI11 myself.

    I write historical, so that makes it a little easier to know what the reader won’t know from personal experience. There were no stirrups or horse collars in the period of my novels. On second thought, those items are outside the experience of many people even born before 1997. Hmmm. How does one explain the absence of something by referring to something the reader doesn’t know about either?

  8. Avatar
    Christine Henderson October 27, 2015 at 12:22 pm #

    The big things about technology have changed, but then there’s those everyday social things that can catch you unawares. I have a first draft of a novel from 20 years ago that talked about going inside an airport to the gate with someone. Can’t do that anymore.

  9. Avatar
    Peter DeHaan October 27, 2015 at 2:54 pm #

    I was recently reviewing an old article I write to recycle for a content marketing piece. In the original version I talked about looking for a company in the yellow pages. The new version has them doing a Google search. My how things change in a short time.

  10. Avatar
    Linda Riggs Mayfield October 27, 2015 at 5:00 pm #

    My introduction to the Beloit College list came when I was director of enrollment management/registrar for a college when couple of my own kids were in college. People in my line of work studied it annually so we could appear to be in touch with the high school kids we were trying to recruit to our college, but knowing those were also my own children’s contexts was shocking! I almost fanatically try to avoid anachronisms in my writing, and check out any phrase or object that’s in doubt; but I have a friend who does historical re-enactment and his organization is actually called the Society for Creative Anachronism, so I guess avoidance or appreciation of it depend one one’s viewpoint! 😀

  11. Avatar
    Linda K. Rodante October 29, 2015 at 2:24 pm #

    Very important information. I hear speakers who address youth use these dated references all the time–leaving their listeners with blank looks and worse–boredom.

  12. Avatar
    Paul Burgess November 1, 2015 at 5:42 pm #

    When I think of a writers voice it helps to remember what Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they follow me.”

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