Why you should write for one person

Reading time: About 3 minutes

For whom do you write? I know your work might be for a client or for the public. But, really, you should always write for one person…

I’ve received a great deal of advice over the years.

Some of this advice has been silly — “don’t go swimming until an hour after eating.” Some of it has been useful — “wear a pedometer to track your walking.” And some of it has been 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.

How to find your ‘local market’

Let’s pretend you run a bookstore specializing in New Age books. You know your specific person — i.e. your typical buyer — is a man or a woman somewhere between the ages of 35 and 49, who has done at least some work on a college degree.

You also suppose that they don’t watch much TV or streaming, 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 your thoughts of them in mind.

In fact, if you’re really smart, you go a little further and you name your key buyer. Let’s say you call your female buyer Vanessa and your male buyer Todd.

write for one personAnd 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 short, you work hard to appeal to a small and specific group of people. This is marketing locally.

What it means to sell widely

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. This is because you sell widely.

A similar philosophy applies to writing. I express it this way:

Write for one person; have many readers.

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

Why writers should create personas

write for one personThe biggest benefit of creating imaginary people (they are called personas) 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 specific person, or core reader, a name and a face, you transform him or her from just one person in an anonymous mass into an actual human being.

I do this all the time when I’m writing. For example, I produce this blog for non-fiction writers. I’ve never written fiction and I don’t regard myself as an expert on the topic. That said, I know that many of my subscribers — and some of my clients — 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.

Then, when it’s time for you to edit your work, revisit the question of your specific person. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Is your reader really going to understand everything you’ve written? (Check for technical language, jargon and acronyms now.)
  • Is the point you’re trying to make going to be meaningful, interesting and helpful to them?
  • Do the examples you give and the stories you tell in your writing resonate with your specific person?

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

Learn to write for one person

Never believe that your writing is going to appeal to everyone, even if you’re writing for a mass-market publication. The words you produce will move some people strongly and leave others cold. That doesn’t make you a terrible writer. It’s just reality.

Back in the days when I was a senior newspaper editor and writer, I always wrote and edited for one person — my mom. Why? She was smart and interested in life, but she’d had no education beyond high school. I know that if my mom could understand my words, most of my other readers would be able to as well.

So go to town with the need to write for just one person. Give your one reader a name, a face, a place where he or she lives and a brief history. Even better, make it someone you already know well — your best friend, your sister, a neighbour, a cousin.

In whatever way you manage it, write for one person. Ironically, you’ll reach more people this way because the alchemy of engagement will make your writing so much more interesting.

An earlier version of this post appeared on my blog on April 23/19.


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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 Jan. 31/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better.  To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!
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