Every word you write is meant for someone. And the more specific your idea of that someone, the more impact your writing can have. Identifying and defining your ideal reader, then, is an exercise in honing and improving your craft. Knowing who you’re writing for will help you get better at this—and as a side benefit, it will help you in marketing your work as well.
Letters aimed at one person
Stephen King (whom you may have heard of) published one of the seminal works on craft—his book On Writing—in 2000. It’s 291 pages of you-must-read, and on page 216 of that book King writes:
“Someone—I can’t remember who, for the life of me—once wrote that all novels are really letters aimed at one person. As it happens, I believe this. I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, ‘I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?’ For me that first reader is my wife, Tabitha.”
This idea that what you’re writing as an audience of one is kind of tricky for some authors, because we tend to think in masses. We want a wide audience, we want a huge following, we want a deluge of readers—so one reader just doesn’t cut it.
And of course, that’s true. If we’re publishing and just the one reader latches onto us, we’re not exactly going to be buying custom-built catamarans and sailing around the world while we take in the sun and pen the occasional bestseller (you know who you are, pal). We need an audience. A big one.
The point of our ideal reader, however, is to give us a target. It’s a tool for defining our audience type, so that we are creating work that resonates with the people most likely to buy it. Think of it as improving your odds for success.
Writing with an ideal reader in mind means using language and imagery and style and timbre that would appeal to that specific reader, and thus would largely appeal to readers like that reader. You can’t please everyone, it’s true. But you could please everyone who might be pretty close to the one. That’s a lot easier.
If you don’t happen to have an ideal reader sharing space in your home, you can still get the benefits by defining your ideal reader.
Profiling for the Non-Stalker
In the marketing and advertising world, professionals often create ‘customer profiles.’ You might also see these called ‘user profiles,’ or ‘target consumer profiles,’ or a dozen other names. They’re generally a one-sheet look at the ideal customer for a client or business—complete with demographic information, descriptions of their likes and dislikes, maybe even what they had for breakfast on a given day.
For some authors (especially fiction authors), this might sound pretty familiar. It’s the same sort of work that often goes into creating a character for a story. You’re weaving together details that may or may not be used in your narrative, but help you understand the character.
This works for both fiction and non-fiction authors, by the way. As a non-fiction author, you might think of your ideal reader as an ideal customer (if your book is geared toward promoting you and your services) or an ideal student (if your goal is to teach a concept or influence how people think about a topic). Your ideal reader is the person who will benefit most from the solution you’re providing.
Building a reader profile can be as simple or as complex as you need or want it to be, but the best approach is to start with the basics and build from there. Jot down the age, sex, martial status, level of education, occupation, and any other information you feel is vital. You might start by writing a sentence like the following:
My ideal reader is a 28-year-old married mother of two who works full time as a project manager, and likes to read cozy mysteries in her off hours.
You can see that even though there aren’t a ton of specific details about this reader, we already have an idea of who she is. We can already picture her, sitting in a big, comfy chair in the evening, after the kids have been put to bed. She has a cup of hot tea and one of those cozy mysteries (hopefully yours!), and she’s unwinding before going to bed.
That, alone, might help focus what you’re writing, but it can help even more to take this game further, and add more details. For example:
My ideal reader is Charlotte, a 28-year-old married mother of two who works full time as a project manager for a furniture installation company. She and her husband have an arrangement—she makes dinner when she gets home, makes sure the whole family is fed and homework is done, and he makes sure the kids get their baths and are tucked into bed on time. While he’s taking care of his part of the bargain, Charlotte snuggles up in her favorite reading chair with a cup of chamomile and the latest cozy mystery.
See how adding a bit of backstory gives us a lot more to work with? If we’re the author of that cozy mystery that Charlotte is reading, we’re going to make a lot of decisions based on this vision we have of her. When we come to a fork in the road, and can’t decide if we want to have the protagonist burst into a room guns blazing or instead have her talk her way out of a tough predicament, thoughts of Charlotte will help guide us.
Building Your Biggest Fan
To help flesh out your ideal reader, you may want to build a profile that contains any or all of the following:
- Marital/Family status
- Favorite [something] (book, beverage, food, music, movie, hobby, etc.)
For extra credit, you might also consider adding details such as:
- Pet peeves
- Favorite vacation spots
- Types of books they read (other than the type you write)
- Political leanings
- Fears, worries, and frustrations
- Relationship woes
- Secret fantasies
- Pretty much anything you can think of
Remember, we’re creating a character here, and we want that character to adore our work.
Actually, what we’re really crafting is our biggest fan, and everything we write from here out will be aimed at this person.
You can do this for your work as a whole, or you can craft a persona for each book you write—a generally good practice for non-fiction writers, especially.
There are huge benefits to taking the time to pull together an ideal reader profile—your work will improve as you keep your ideal reader in mind. Decisions about plot, setting, language, levels of sex and violence, and a lot more become no-brainers, because you’ll have a benchmark to measure against. You can ask, “What would Charlotte do?” Insert your preferred reader name, obviously.
But beyond helping to shape and hone your craft, you can also use this information to promote and market your work.
Knowing your ideal reader means knowing your target market. And the more you know about him or her, the more targeted your market becomes.
Use your IR profile to help make decisions about where to advertise your work, and how. Decide where your reader lives, where they spend their leisure time, what magazines they buy and what Facebook groups they belong to, and all of that information will help you create advertising and marketing material that reach the right audience, where they hang out.
If you’re hiring someone to handle marketing on your behalf, this exercise will help save time and money. Give your reader profile to your marketing professional, and watch the magic unfold.
Regardless of the type of writing you do—fiction or non-fiction, cozy mysteries or steamy romances, historic biographies or Silicon Valley tell-alls—knowing as much as you can about who is reading your work will give you advantages and resources that will make your writing better and easier to market. Thinking in terms of your reader is a vital part of your author business strategy, and it’s worth the time and effort you’ll put in. Give it a try to see how incredibly powerful this tool can be.