Hello, traveler. Yes, I am indeed talking to you. Is it often that you ask yourself if I’m addressing you, specifically?
Writing is a difficult task, especially when you need to address an audience. “Who is my audience?” is a question I’m sure you’ve asked yourself at least once. Then you delve into criteria and demographics, picking and sorting through members of a fictitious focus group while succeeding only in giving yourself a headache.
What about you? Well, what about me? I’ve told you before; I’m just a speck of dust floating along in the void.
I write for me. I write for you. I write for whoever intends to listen.
Regardless, what I’m truly doing is enjoying myself.
Addressing the Paradox
In his “craft” book, On Writing Well, author William Zinsser acknowledges a paradox that arises from the fundamental question, “Who am I writing for?”. When the need to write presents itself in the form of social media posts, thoughtful opinion pieces, or brand-wide mission statements, you may envision “The Audience” as the conglomerate who will consume your content. Zinsser argues against this. “Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience,” he instructs, “there is no such audience.” (p. 24). Instead, he urges you to write for yourself, attributing the distinction between audience and self to “craft” and “attitude”.
This statement, “write for yourself,” is itself a paradoxical stance. However, Zinsser’s point is that your personality (“attitude”) should shine through your writing. That’s what “writing for yourself” means: you should enjoy writing, and your writing should be an act of self-expression. There is a time and place for you to ask, “Who am I writing for?”, but you should ask it in a broader sense. Are you writing something self-indulgent? Piecing together an argument? Presenting unbiased facts? Each piece, each article, constitutes a different audience — and a different mindset.
Adjusting Your Mindset
Posting to your blog is as self-indulgent as you can get. Essays, however, are aimed at cohorts or professors — and warrant a shift in format, change, and mindset from a lighthearted recounting of a memory. What about marketing materials, emails, or newspaper articles? Surely these pieces aim to address some “great mass audience”, right? In theory, yes. But Zinsser’s paradox isn’t about distinguishing between self and others. It’s about skill and flair, with flair being your personality. Don’t pigeon-hole your blog post by believing it’s intended for you, alone, and don’t shut out the curious bystander who happens to stumble across your insightful, yet jargon-riddled thesis. If you enjoy yourself while writing and treat it as a creative act, your personality — your style — will follow suit. Acting pretentious and vain could earn you an unfavorable impression in any of these written materials, regardless of your intentions.
Cute as it may be, don’t look to this pigeon for solace. It could be one of your readers! Stop pigeon-holing!
Building Your Foundation
Regarding “craft”, your audience will be lost in any of the previous scenarios if your writing is flawed. “There is no excuse,” Zinsser warns, “for losing readers through sloppy workmanship” (p. 25). If you want to both garner and retain your reader, your work better not be riddled with technical, grammatical, and/or spelling errors. It’s as simple as that; master the basics and solidify your foundation in writing. Only then can you concern yourself with your reader’s perception of you.
You vs. Everyone Else
To further dissect Zinsser’s paradox, I find it worth distinguishing between an audience of you vs. an audience of your reader. This distinction helps define whether your ego is required. Self-indulgent pieces like blogs, opinions, etc. require ego, while promotional materials demand a uniform, branded style. Company campaigns and social media content are written for “The Audience™” since you are not the sole target, so lose the ego. Your personal style may announce itself in your decisions (such as structure or word choice), but the overall thematic must adhere to brand guidelines (“no exclamation points”, “
pride” vs “spirit”). Nevertheless, you should enjoy yourself while writing these things, lest your sentences reflect your disinterest.
There’s a Niche for That
Both sets of distinctions, however, are notably useless in certain niche writing. I mentioned that materials like mission statements and marketing campaigns require a loss of ego. Technical writing requires its nonexistence. Examples of technical writing include user manuals, operating procedures, annual reports, documentation; anything that conveys complex information to broad audiences. The “great mass audience” Zinsser warned against visualizing? Well, Medium writer Alex Ashton’s first “key” to technical writing is to ask, “Who are my readers?”.
Once you’ve identified them, visualize them as a general audience. This, Ashton explains, will help establish the parameters for your piece. Technical writing can be broken into two high-level categories:
A moment ago, I mentioned neutrality and accessibility. This duo’s rightful third companion is simplicity. This is a crucial pillar in mastering the written word (and mastering that “craft” I keep repeating myself about), and it’s just as necessary in technical writing. Trivial embellishments have no place in user manuals and instructions; they’ll only account for confusion and distraction. In the words of author Michael Knowles, “nobody wants to read a tech manual” (“Succeeding as a Technical Writer”, 2001). As such, he argues that an important rule in technical writing is “don’t waste the [reader’s] time”. This rule is succeeded by “keep it simple”, in which Knowles explicitly states, “Save your beautiful prose and love of great words for your novel” (Ibid.). Adorning your manual or support article will not only increase its complexity, but will also waste “at least three people’s time: the customer’s, the support person’s, and yours” (Ibid.). Didn’t Knowles just warn against wasting your user’s (reader’s) time? Save that “attitude” and personality for your novels and tweets.
I don’t need anecdotes, I need answers.
So… Is the Audience Really A Lie?
When sitting down to write, the first thing you’ll most likely ask yourself is who your audience is. A simple, fundamental question, and yet a paradoxical one — and you struggle to distinguish between writing for yourself and a self-prescribed audience. Author William Zinsser notes that this distinction shouldn’t be between you and your audience, but between your skill and your personality. Everything you draft should be built on a solid foundation and understanding of basic principles. This is a reflection of your skill.
Whether your reader is interested in your material, however, may be a result of a lack of personality, marked by your lack of enjoyment in writing. Most writing should be an expression of ego and creativity, but some things (such as technical writing) should focus on skill and craft, only. Distinguishing between writing for yourself and your audience is important in certain scenarios (e.g., technical writing vs. not), but should supplement the initial distinction between craft and skill.
So, no, the audience isn’t really a lie. They do, indeed, exist. The cake, however, is something you’ll have to find out about for yourself.
The key to Zinsser’s paradox is to write for yourself, but write in a manner that is both masterful and consumable.