Why you should write for just one reader

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

For whom do you write? I know your work might be for a client or for the general public. But what does that really mean? Today’s article gives a surprising answer to this question.

I’ve been given a great deal of advice over the years — some of it silly (“don’t go swimming until an hour after eating”), some of it useful (“wear a pedometer to track your walking”) and some of it both silly and useful (“turn on the vacuum cleaner to soothe an unhappy baby”). But by far the best piece of entrepreneurial counsel I’ve ever received has been this:

Market locally; sell widely. 

What does this mean? Well, for example, let’s imagine you run a bookstore specializing in New Age books. You suppose your typical buyer to be a man or a woman somewhere between age 35 and 49. You also suppose that they don’t watch much TV, that there’s an excellent chance they’re vegetarian and that they like cats. So, as you ponder which books to buy and where to advertise your store, you keep this description in mind.

In fact, if you’re really smart, you go a little bit further and you name your key buyer. Let’s say you call your female buyer Vanessa and your male buyer Todd. And as you run your bookstore — perhaps as you’re redecorating the shop — you regularly ask questions like “would Vanessa find these colours attractive?” and “what would Todd think of this incense? ” If you decide either of them would dislike your changes, you don’t make them.

In other words, you work hard to appeal to a small and very specific group of people. This is marketing locally.

But what happens when a 20-year-old university student walks into the store? Do you turn her away when she wants to buy a book? Likewise for the 58-year-old retired logger. Do you tell him to get lost? No! Of course you sell your books to anyone who wants to buy them. You may not market to them but you will certainly sell to them. In other words, you sell widely.

A similar philosophy applies to writing. I express it as:

Write for one person; be read by many. 

Just as our bookstore owner needed to visualize the core buyer, so, too, you need to be conscious of your core reader. I’ve written about this principle in my own book, but I really want to emphasize the point here.

The biggest benefit of creating imaginary people like Vanessa and Todd is that you stop thinking about yourself. Instead of focusing on your own needs and problems, you’re suddenly thinking about what the client or the reader cares about. And by giving your core reader a name and a face you transform him or her from an anonymous mass into a real human being.

I do this all the time with my own writing. For example, I produce this blog for non-fiction writers. I’ve never written fiction and I don’t regard myself an expert on the topic. That said, I know that many of my subscribers are, in fact, fiction writers. Do I turn them away? No! They find what I say useful. I know I’ve even sold books to many of them and some enroll in my courses and programs. So, while I don’t write specifically for them, they find my work helpful.

For any writer, the core reader needs to become a key part of your daily life. That way, every time you review your work, one of your first questions will be, “Would Vanessa/Todd (or whatever you name them) find this useful or interesting?”

Don’t ever believe that your writing is going to appeal to everyone. The words you produce will move some people strongly and leave others cold. That doesn’t make you a bad writer. It’s just reality.

So go to town with the core reader concept. Give your one reader a name, a face, a place where he or she lives and a little history. And if you’re having a hard time with this, use someone you already know well — your best friend, your mother, a neighbour, a cousin.

However you do it, write for this one person. Ironically, you’ll reach more people this way because the alchemy of engagement will automatically make your writing more interesting.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on May 24/09.
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If you want support while writing for just one reader and help with the accountability of writing or editing every day, consider applying to my Get It Done writing program. More information and the application form can be found here. The deadline for starting May 1/19 is April 26/19.
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Have you ever tried writing for just one reader? How did it work for you? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by April 30/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of the non-fiction book Organized Enough by Amanda Sullivan. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.