The Key Question I Ask Authors

When people hand me a proposal or manuscript for a non-fiction book and ask me for a publishing opinion, we’ll talk about a number of issues. But I have one chief diagnostic question. Almost anything and everything an author has to say flows from the answer to this question. It tells writers what kind of vocabulary and images to use, how long the piece should be, how to organize the material, what to leave in, what to take out, and even where to try to publish it.

The question is this:

Who is your audience? If you don’t know clearly to whom you are writing for or whom you want to reach, you are writing with a pen that has no ink.

The immediate

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instinctive (and wrong) response is to say you are writing for everyone. A book that is for everyone is for no one. It will be too broad and general to interest any particular people. Don’t say it is for all parents or all voters or all women or all business people.

Instead, when thinking about your audience, try to be as specific as possible–age range, economic status, religious background, ethnicity, geographic location, life experiences and so forth. In fact, I encourage writers to pick out one person they know that they would love to have read their piece. Then write for that one person.

Obviously and hopefully, many people from a wide range of backgrounds and circumstances will read the book or article. But it is best to think of them as reading over the shoulder of the one person or group you have in mind. That in fact is what happens all the time. It is

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the concreteness and particularity of a written piece which actually gives it universal appeal.

Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games for young adults, and she successfully reached those readers–and millions more who read over their shoulder.

Some books don’t gain such extra readers. They simply go very deeply into a narrow market. Richard Bolles’ What Color Is Your Parachute? for job hunters is one such example.

But both books illustrate the same principle–stay focused on a narrow audience.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.