Why you should write for just one person

Who do you write for? I’ve noticed how often so-called content-specialists or writing teachers or any of the like will tell you to “know your audience” or some bullshit like that, without every really telling you why or, maybe more importantly, how. I think it’s because they don’t really know.

You can't please everyoneResearching some story tips, though, I came across same piece of advice from a couple different writers.  Kurt Vonnegut:

Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

and John Steinbeck:

Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

Seth Godin said something really similar, in a post about how to make your writing go viral. His advice was to not try:

No, the best approach is to write for just one person. Make an impact on just one person. Even better, make it so they can’t sleep that night unless they choose to make a difference for just one other person by sharing your message with them.

It’s not advice you’re going to hear often, trust me—I hadn’t. And it’s not exactly intuitive, either. Genre writers are usually taught the opposite. We have marks we have to hit in terms of the structure and story elements (that’s why BISAC has subject categories as specific as Scifi / Romance / Time Travel, even though it probably shouldn’t) designed to placate some formula developed from years and years of sales data. This sells, but this won’t. This kind of reader likes this sort of story, this kind doesn’t. I guess it’s okay, then, that I never really paid much attention to hitting those marks or who’d buy my books. I just wrote stories that I’d want to read. Maybe that means I was writing for myself? Who knows.

Being specific

I don’t think the advice here is as much about getting us to pick some singular, yet maybe still imaginary reader, as it is getting us to focus. With the writers I’ve worked with over the years, I find specificity is usually a problem, especially. When I was in college, I had a professor who made it a sport to cross out my adjectives and even verbs and write “be specific!” in the margins. I hated her. I still kind of hate her. But she had a point. Weak writing is often vague, unspecific, generalized. Strong writing is concrete, real, decipherable. You can touch it, feel it, hold it. For example, think about how much you use the modifier “very”—probably one of the least specific words in the English language. Mark Twain once suggest replacing every “very” in your copy with “damn” so they’d all get struck down in editing.

The more we focus on one person as our reader, though, the more specific and concrete we can be. And I’m not just talking language and mechanics. Everything changes. Look at it this way, mom gets a different email than a colleague at work, right? Mom probably gets different emails than husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, even if the topic is the same. Choosing that one person creates a context, a frame that allows solid writing to follow.

So, who do you write for?