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.