Be Your Own Ideal Reader

By Michael

Our article Your Ideal Reader prompted a response from veteran writer Kilburn Hall, who wrote:

There is no “ideal” reader and if you start trying to write for one specific audience, you’re going to tune out others that might actually be interested in reading your book.

How can Mr. Hall can say that? Because, like most successful writers, he is his own ideal reader! Instead of trying to please an imaginary member of a writer’s market (“middle-class men aged 35-65”), he is trying to please himself. And like every successful writer, he is single-minded about catering to this ideal reader, which happens to be himself. So his manuscripts satisfy editors, and his books satisfy readers.

When you look at it that way, though, it’s not true that writing for one specific audience will tune out others. If you don’t decide who you’re writing for, even if it’s yourself, your writing becomes vague, even useless. A “finance” article for corporate accountants probably won’t help college students cut their expenses. I would say this principle applies to novels as well. If you write an adventure novel because you really like adventure novels, the lovers of adventure novels will perk up, and other readers can at least tell they’re reading the real thing. Writing for specific readers, or a specific purpose, doesn’t keep other people from reading your piece, just because you weren’t thinking about them when you wrote it.

Yes, you’ll tune out some readers if your publisher prints on the cover, “To Be Read By Middle Class Women Only”, which is why your publisher doesn’t do that. But your publisher is very interested in making sure middle class women know when a book is targeted for them. The pastels and flowers on the cover might tune out some middle class men. But if you don’t know what you’re writing about, you’ll tune everybody out.

One group that Mr. Hall’s message is especially relevant for, however: aspiring writers who are willing to compromise their vision to make a sale. You have to write the book that’s in you, not the book that you’d like to think was in you. If you pretend to be writing for particular ideal readers just because they buy a lot of books, but your heart isn’t in it, the quality of your writing will suffer, and you won’t fool your readers either. But if you say, as Herman Melville did, “I want to write a novel about a white whale, and I don’t care if anybody else reads it,” you’ll do all right.

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6 Responses to “Be Your Own Ideal Reader”

  • Michael Netzley

    This is an interesting post, and hopefully I can contribute in some small way. Should our writing appeal broadly to many, or take a more defined, focused (or narrow, if you prefer) approach to the audience? This question leads me to respectfully disagree with Kilburn Hall. The history of literary criticism is rich with ideas similar to the “ideal audience.” We might simply consider the implied audience, those who would likely say yes to a given text given the word choice, sentence structure, argumentative and persuasive appeals, and overall structure and tone. We have scholars such as James Boyd White and Wayne Booth who have written extensively in this area. For Prof. White, all rhetoric is an invitation which invites us to embrace a set of values and play a specific role relative to the rhetor. Who will say yes and who will say no to that invitation? And in his book about literary ethics, Prof Booth asks pretty much the same question.

    I won’t bore readers with more academic texts, but in short we all face a choice about who we are writing to. No matter what, there is no such thing as a text that everyone will say yes to. While nobody has yet suggested such a far-fetched idea, I think we can narrow the focus a bit and say that texts with extremely broad appeal are compromises in much the same way that focused texts are compromises. we give up something in exchange for appeals that are broad or focused (as you choose).

    As a writer, we must simply choose which option we are comfortable with. But at the end of the day, there will be a group of people willing to say “yes” to your text….and they are in a sense an ideal audience.

    Count me as being in agreement with your take on ideal audiences.

  • richard

    To be a successful writer , one might adopt a general plan.
    It might include an appeal to a certain audience: detective story lovers or drama lovers or maybe a combination but the essential factor is the writer’s love for the topic.

    A successful writer is not necessarily one who makes the most money but some would say so. For me a successful writer is one who has made even one person look and think about a problem from a different angle.

  • richard

    Why, oh why are some writers so verbose!!

    I won’t bore you with more academic texts (sic) ,so, why include it in comments? Simply begin , In short…………….

    At the end of the day (sic ) why not use finally?

  • Joshua

    Wait! Mehlville wrote a book about a whale? I thought it was a metaphor!

    Just kidding…

    Stephen King had an interesting view on this in his book, On Writing. He basically writes for himself and his Ideal Reader both. His IR is his wife and if she likes it, and he likes it, he’s okay with it.

  • Suresh

    As a Tech Writer, I always have the ideally reader in mind. For example, if I am writing a article about a technical subject, I keep in mind the reader, who is well versed in that particular technology; on the other hand, if I am writing about a subject say…”How to protect your computer from hackers” then I will not have any “ideal Reader” in mind. Wait!!! even for this , I will have a “ideal reader”.. that’s is lay man having limited knowledge in computers. From my point of view, it is very difficult to write without having a ideal writer in mind. Even for authors writing fiction will have an ideal reader in mind; else, we won’t be having different genres like action, adventure, romantic authors.

  • Jane_lucky

    When I write something on my space, i just write what i am thinking and with no ideal readers in my mind. But there are real readers and some of them say that i speak out exactly what they want to say. i was rewarded and felt nice when they agree or disagree with me. i believe that everyone has his own thought, we all have the right to write and every may become your audience when you lay something out in heart.

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