“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”
– George Bernard Shaw
The writer who taught me the most is a friend of mine named Brady. We go way back. I first met him in the lobby of middle school when we were both waiting for rides home. We started talking about comic books. Ever since then we occasionally have conversations about our creative projects (and also about comic books.) I guess twenty years of semi-regular conversations about how we write have added up to some useful information.
Brady has managed to work full time and be a relentlessly productive writer for years. He just self-published an ebook titled Dream Her Back.
He creates a twice-weekly web comic, Eat the Babies, and he also somehow finds time to blog now and then for several different websites.
He and I have had many conversations over the years about creativity, but one sticks out as particularly memorable for me. That is when Brady told me about the idea of trying to write for one specific person. It doesn’t matter who, he explained, and they don’t need to know. This was a suggestion he picked up from reading Kurt Vonnegut’s forward to Bagombo Snuffbox. He insisted this was an idea worth trying.
To be honest, I did not understand how this practice could be helpful until I tried it. Turns out that this is a tremendous tool for forcing a piece to have an even tone to it. Don’t judge the effectiveness by this blog post, however because it is too meta.
Of course I had heard about the concept of a “target audience” before. All through middle and high school that term was rammed at us in every Language Arts class. Truly, I felt like a target. But until Brady suggested it, it had never occurred to me to pick one single individual as my target audience. Maybe this is common sense to other people, but since neither one of us were creative writing majors it felt like hard won wisdom.
I use it nearly every time I write anything now in order to keep focused on what to say and how to say it. Sometimes this is easy. When I have an editor to work with I know that my editor is my intended audience and I can keep my tone consistent by crafting each sentence for them personally. Other times it is not so easy.
If I am working on a personal project with no guidelines, due date or editor, those are the times I have to use my creativity not only for writing, but also for putting constraints on myself in order to keep from going in too many directions at once. In these cases I have to really stretch my imagination and reach for someone to keep in mind as the intended reader.
If you want to try it yourself, here are some suggestions on how to pick an intended reader. Remember, this person never needs to read your piece in real life. This is strictly a mental exercise in order to keep your writing focused. Who should you pick? Former teachers are handy, assuming they were any good when you were in class with them. Family members are useful to keep in mind, since one often has fondness for them and they are usually willing to read the finished piece anyway. You can also pick your favorite author, or a friend who is also a writer. But watch out it can easily get meta.