Look again at the title of this article. I describe this writing practice as “Technique Number One” because writing for an actual reader is the driving force behind all of the other techniques discussed in this Tricks of the Trade series. Think about it: as writers, we should create flow in our writing for our readers. We use clear word choices to get our ideas across clearly to our readers. We use parallel sentence structures to help keep our readers on track. Essentially, good writing is all about the effects we have on our readers. Whether we’re making a sentence more concise and logical or making the choice to add a new paragraph discussion, every choice we make as writers is ultimately for the purpose of better reaching and winning over our readers.
But what does it mean to “imagine and project a reader”? It’s simple: when you write, don’t think so much about the many rules you have learned about grammar, spelling, sentence length, etc. Sure, those rules have their place (well, some of them do, anyway), but that place is secondary to a higher purpose: affecting your readers in the way(s) that you hope to affect them. With that larger goal in mind, consider the fact that an actual human being–or group of human beings!–will be reading what you are writing.
Think about who those human beings are. Are they Americans, or are you writing for an international audience? Are they adults, or are they children–or young adults? Do they have college educations? Are they informed on the topic–or do you need to get them up to speed? Are they religious or nonreligious—or is it a mix? What are their social and/or political views? Do they belong to a certain profession? Write with these considerations in mind.
Writing for Your Audience: An Example
In some cases, you will know a bit about your reading audience. For example, if writing an essay for an engineering professor, you know a bit about that audience. You know that your audience is well informed, and you also know the field in which your audience works. So, with that reader in mind, here’s the key question to ask yourself while writing that essay: “What is important to an engineer?” You might also ask yourself the broader question: “What is important to any professor?” With those points in mind, you’d best get your math right, you should present clear diagrams and research, and you’d better not have any typos. (After all, engineers are looking for a close attention to details, and that includes proofreading and keeping the writing typo-free!)
Last, but certainly not least, you will need to produce content that your audience (in this case, an engineering professor) will find intriguing but also one that is based on the lessons learned in the course. One great way to make that essay intriguing would be to go one step beyond what the professor taught you about the topic. If, for example, the professor taught you how to apply hydrodynamics to better understand plumbing installed in a skyscraper, then you might take that concept and apply it elsewhere by writing an essay on the hydrodynamics of underground structures. Would your professor like that move? Would she appreciate you taking what she taught you and applying it to your own areas of interest? Chances are, she would–but there’s also a chance that she would want you to stick with the core material in the course, including the applications. This is where knowing your audience is useful. Did you ever hear her say, “Plumbing is only one example of hydrodynamics at work. I challenge you to think of other areas where we see it.” If she said that (or something close), then it’s safe to say that you kn0w what to write for her.
Ever aware of my audience, I know that many of my readers are not college students. However, the same basic concept applies: if you know your audience, write accordingly. If you are writing to your boss in hopes of a promotion, think about your boss’s expectations. (You might also think about the larger company and its expectations.) If you are writing to a senator asking him to support your cause, consider his platform and his political philosophies. If you are writing a letter to a friend who has lost a parent, then write with your friend’s personality in mind. Think about what makes her laugh. Think about shared experiences that might cheer her up. Think about whether she is the kind of person who desires a show of sympathy in times of loss or whether she just prefers to talk about other (happier) topics. No matter the writing situation, use whatever you know about your reader to win that reader over to your desired effect for the writing.
(A related note for college students: As a professor–and as someone who knows many other professors–I can say that most professors like to see their students take core concepts beyond what is taught in the course. This is one key difference between high-school-level thinking and the thinking we expect to see in college-level work: while professors do want to see students learn facts, those facts are often worthless if they are not applied elsewhere. Most professors are not looking for regurgitation of basics; we are hoping that our students take the lessons of the course to heart and allow those lessons to change the ways that they think about other matters.)
But What if I Don’t Know Who My Audience Is?
In other cases, you will have no clue who your precise audience is, so you will write for a broad audience. Here’s the good news: there are many writing practices that work for all audiences. In such cases, the only assumption you should make is that your reader will be attentive and will try to read your essay fully and carefully. In other words, the one thing you do know is this: your reader is a reader.
So what it is that all readers need and appreciate? The best way to answer this question is to apply the “Golden Rule of Writing”:
The Golden Rule of Writing: Write for others the way that you would want them to write for you.
In other words, think about the kind of reading experience you would like to have when reading. You want to read writing that flows naturally and is easy to read. You want to read writing that is typo-free. You want to read writing that makes intriguing and even life changing points. You want the writer’s jokes to make you laugh (and you want them to be jokes that make you laugh until you piss yoursel—um. . . I mean, that make you laugh yourself silly!). With those points in mind, write to create the very same kind of reading experience you would appreciate if you were the one reading. Chances are, when it comes to basic expectations for the reading experience, your readers are a lot like you. Think about what those readers want, need, and expect–and write accordingly.
This is the number-one rule of all good writing. If you aren’t doing this, you aren’t really writing.
Transition: Making It Flow
As you read about the Tricks of the Trade techniques in upcoming articles, consider how all of these techniques fall under the overarching writing practice of imagining and serving your readers. The next article on creating flow and transition is a good example. As you read about ways to create transition in your writing, consider the reason for creating transition: to serve your readers with the same kind of natural, flowing writing that you would want to read.
Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).