The Importance of Knowing Your Audience

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As a writer, one of the things I worry about is my readers and what they will think of the piece I’ve written.  I try not to let these thoughts dictate too much about what I write, because if I tried to write something everyone would love, I’d end up unhappy with the story and if I don’t like it, why should a reader?

Thinking about your audience is important.  You write in a very different style if you’re writing a middle-grades fantasy than you would writing a new adult romance or a young adult adventure.  Fiction writers use different conventions than non-fiction writers in terms of organization and presentation.  Different genres have different expectations.

Don’t get me wrong, going against those expectations and breaking out of the genre box is something I love to do, and I think a lot of readers enjoy this bending of the genre rules.  However, there are situations where you don’t want to go too far outside your audiences expectations.  You don’t want to lose them because you’ve suddenly changed the genre mid-stream, or have them not pick up your work at all because it’s not what they were expecting from you (this last one is why many famous authors use a pseudonym if they publish in a different genre).

I was talking with some colleagues at the university recently, and one of them shared a story with me that really highlights the important of being aware of your audience.

This is a second hand story, so I may have some of the facts wrong, but I think I have the gist of it right at least.  This is a true story that actually happened to someone my colleague was talking to at a symposium.

In this case, the writer is a university student, and the reader is their professor.

The student send this email:

From: Student

To: Professor

Subject:

Email Body: R U N

When the professor received this message, they read it as “run.”  Having no idea why the student would send such a thing, the professor ran through ideas about why the student would tell them to run.  With no other context to go on, the professor called campus security.  Their building was evacuated.

When the professor next saw the student, they asked, “Why did you send that email telling me to run?  Where you alright?  Had something happened?”

“Oh, no,” the student replied.  “I just wanted to come by your office.  I was asking ‘are you in’ not saying run.”

A pretty harmless misunderstanding right?

But this is the kind of thing that can happen when you don’t consider your audience.  I don’t say the exact same words in an email to my boss about something as I would an email about the same something to a coworker, family member, or friend.  I don’t speak the same way at work as I do at home.

This is called code-switching.  Most people are familiar with the term in the context of someone who is bilingual who switches languages between school/work and home.  However, the term applies to language in general.  The language decisions you make based on context are a type of code-switching.  Not using curse words in front of your elders or small children, using more formal language in a classroom, or using heavily jargoned language with colleagues in your field are all examples of code-switching.

It’s important to think about this with writing as well.  At the book level, you need to think about the conventions of your genre, be it fiction or non-fiction, so you aren’t using language in a way that would be off-putting to readers of your genre.

This can also be an important thing at the character level.  Your characters are likely to code-switch as well.  Their dialogue may be different when they are speaking to their parents than when they talk to their friends.  They may sound different talking to a stranger than someone they know.  This can be an excellent way to add depth to your characterization.

The long and short of it is that you have to be careful with your language and know your audience no matter what the context of your writing.  From emails to novels to internet comments, your language is saying something about you.  Make sure it’s saying what you want it to.

Have you ever had a complete miscommunication like the student and professor I talked about?  I’d love to hear your stories of when language failed to convey what the speaker/writer intended.

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