A friend recently asked me to write a piece for his fledgling magazine. I asked about his audience for this new magazine. He told me to write whatever whatever I want. He said he thought the undefined audience and mag title reflected the nature of the magazine. Puzzled, I shrugged my shoulders and started making notes.
I should have known better.
After outlining four stories, and starting three drafts, and pulling my hair out over each one, I sent him a frustrated email and said ‘What am I aiming for here, The New Yorker or Cracked?’ He said closer to the former, with a touch for the latter. If I could’ve reached out over email and smacked him with his own vagueness stick, I would’ve.
After three more false starts and much gnashing of teeth, I finally ground out something like a final draft. I sent it off a couple days ahead of deadline, glad to be rid of the accursed thing.
A week later he tells me he doesn’t have room for it.
This piece gave me more trouble than a wolf gives a goat herder. Why?
The piece was easy, but the audience was vague and undefined.
Different audience = Different outcome
Creators, whether or not they consciously acknowledge or it, almost always create with an audience in mind. That audience can be friends, lovers, parents, teachers and professors, critics, employers, or even themselves. The nature and tastes of these audience will affect the decisions the creator makes along the way, ultimately influencing the final product.
Think about all the people you know and how you act (and react) around them. Some people are affable, and you even though they’re new in your life, you feel as if you’ve known them forever. Other people inspire you to be more humorous, or talk about big weighty issues. And other people just give you weird vibes and make you uncomfortable.
All people might be created equal, but our reactions to them and interactions with them are unequal. It’s just human nature. Emotions and moods are contagious. Some people simply make you funnier, or meaner, or smarter.
Think about what happens to your project when you create with one of these people in mind.
Compare creating for one specific person or group to creating for a big, vague audience. Which project do you think will be more exciting and engaging? Seth Godin has written about writing for the middle here. He says, in short, that to reach the middle, the big, undefined majority of people, your work will necessarily need to be boring.
Kurt Vonnegut said that he wrote books for his sister. She was his audience.
Shakespeare wrote for drunken peasants in the English theater. Why else would he include all the bawdy humor and puns? He had to keep them interested and engaged.
Compare the music of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones to that of Nickelback. The first group is creating outstanding, highly complex music for a small segment of the population. Music for musicians, if you will. The second group is aiming for the big, faceless writhing middle. You be the judge of quality.
Questions to ask yourself about your audience
How well do you know your audience? What do they like (and dislike)?
If you’re out of school or university, are you still creating to please a professor? When I stopped writing for school, writing became a hell of a lot more fun. I think this is the reason so many people despise writing or say they can’t write: someone told them they couldn’t, or they received bad marks for things they had written.
Are you creating for a parent? If so, how much do you censor yourself?
Are you creating for a lover? What do they think about your medium? How sophisticated are their tastes? Are they in the middle or out on the fringe?
Are you creating for yourself? Do you always create for yourself? If so, what would happen if you wrote for a different audience.
Next time you’re wondering about how to proceed on a project, consider who you’re creating for. If you’re disappointed with what you’ve made, try creating with a different audience in mind.
Finally, a question for you: who are you? Introduce yourself. I have a couple people in mind as I’m writing this, but I’d love to learn more about all my faceless readers out there. Dont’ be shy!