Identifying an Audience

You must write for yourself, above all. That is [your] only hope of creating something beautiful.

Gustave Flaubert

Conventional advice to writers suggests that writers who write for themselves limit themselves to an audience of “one.” Certainly there are poets and writers who, hypnotized by the hackney and cacophony of their own poor scribble, are oblivious to the reality that their hijacked listeners just want to get through the suffering and on with life. These unfortunate friends and relatives smile when the agony is finally over and struggle to find something complimentary to say, and yet regardless of the kudos they bestow, they are no real audience. They are liars.

Friends and relatives are forced to lie, and they are often forced to buy books they will never open to read and attend readings and book signings that are sheer torture. In every season on American Idol, America stares bewildered at a contestant who, after an embarrassing performance and the abuse and ridicule piled on by the judges and host— refuses the honesty of a real audience. These poor souls opt instead to rely on the encouragement and praise from mortified friends and relatives who have lied to be nice.

For any writer seeking to identify and write professionally to an audience, the first groups to rule out are friends and family. They can be supportive, but they can never buy enough books or publications to make a writer successful. So the key is acquiring the writing skills, organization and insight to write for an unknown audience that is not required to be nice.

While writers fall into many categories, in terms of audience there are only two. The first of these is the Establishment Writers. This category encompasses many of the writers who work for paychecks, including newsprint and television news journalists, periodical writers and publishers, editors, technical writers, copywriters, students, teachers, professors, television and movie studio writers, historians, executives, lawyers, judges, bureaucrats, advertisers and critics.

These writers are generally subject to locked-in audiences, or audiences predisposed to form, content, tone, style and whatever slant they have grown accustomed to in their experiences with the medium before them. In some cases, the writing is opinion neutral, voice neutral, politic neutral (or in political campaigns, pre-measured), passion and idea neutral. The writers are locked in to write what their readers expect them to write and want to hear.

Free thinking and creativity are encouraged only within the greater context or parameters of publishers or publications understanding of what their “audience” or market want to read. In 2008, conservative columnist Christopher Buckley, whose father, William F. Buckley, founded the National Review, was forced to resign from that magazine amid a tsunami of negative emails and letters from readers dismayed by his endorsement of Barack Obama.

Most establishment writers are subject to the politics, opinions and whims of the their audiences, whether that audience consists of men buying the newest and most potent enhancement drug, constituents listening to their candidate’s speech, families surfing a night of evening television, committees charged with evaluating doctoral students’ dissertations or the United States Supreme Court Associate Justices analyzing the written arguments of petitioners.

In order to be successful, these writers must find the sweet spot, the heart of their audiences, or better yet, its very pulse. The most successful among them are those who can discover and maintain the most resonance with their readers.

The end result is nothing beautiful to be sure, but these writers comprise the overwhelming majority of writers who write and certainly of those who get paid in writing related jobs. It is a safe way, if not the most exciting or creative way, to earn a living as a writer.

In terms of audience, the second category of writers is that of the Independent Writers. This group includes original novelists, songwriters, short story writers, poets, essayists, satirists, playwrights, original screenwriters, comedians, some bloggers, anti-establishment writers, movement leaders and game changers. These writers enjoy the greatest freedoms of all writers, among them the freedom to be poor. That is because these writers are not paid to write, but to innovate.

Earning money is not their primary motivation, though many chase pipe dreams of hitting it big and making a fortune, or a difference. And some actually do. Some go on to become the J.K. Rowlings, the Jon Stewarts, Michael Jacksons, Edgar Allan Poes, Tina Feys, Tyler Perrys, Dr. Kings, Bob Dylans and Eminems. But the vast majority of these writers become that inspired “someone we know who is a writer,” that talented someone who might just make it one day.

For these writers, the focus as less about the audience and more about the creation itself, the work. It does not matter so much if the creation earns no money if it is original and beautiful, if it is alive and allowed to grow. Of course professional writers must make a living, so audience does have a place for independent writers— only that place is left or right of center.

Most independent writer audiences are not based on months-old corporate or advertiser generated demographics, market trends, survey information, ratings, educational backgrounds or political leanings. To these writers, the audience is more intuitive than scientific. They feel or sense their audiences even as they write, and these audiences often lack clear confines.

The audiences might be as general as women agonizing over abusive relationships, rape victims living with secrets, persons feeling deceived or abandoned in relationships, persons losing or who have lost loved ones, persons who are feeling oppressed or persecuted, individuals seeking redemption or persons looking for a story to restore their faith.

When they talk to people, these writers are looking for stories to tell in new ways, for some nuance that would make the story unique. For them, controversy is a good thing and debate is inspiring. Perceiving their audiences in real time, independent writers tap into an intuitive pulse, allowing them to be the driving force of original and creative work, the genius of imagination!

And yet in order to create something truly wonderful, these writers must look within in order to feel what they write. It is what made the work of Flaubert, a realist, so engaging. In this way a writer must write for himself or herself, to lend his or her own passion, blood and soul to the work in order to create something that is alive… and beautiful!

As writers, in which category are you? If you are an establishment writer, what is your job and how important is writing to what you do? Do you ever write independent of your job? Who is your audience? Over the course of your career, have there been issues related to content or overreach? Was it your ambition to become a writer?

If you are an independent writer, how much do you value creative freedom? Would you take a job as an establishment writer, with a steady paycheck, benefits and retirement if it were offered? How would you define your audience? What do you write? Do you have another job or career, independent of writing? If so, what are your writing ambitions?

My son, who is also a writer, reminded me that there are hybrids, or exceptions to my definitions of establishment and independent writers, and there are. Matt Stone and Trey Parker (South Park) and Seth McFarlane (Family Guy) are establishment writers who sometimes ignore content and editorial conditions imposed by their networks, distributors, the FCC and lawyers threatening lawsuits. How would you explain their popularity with audiences? Are they writing for target audiences or writing for themselves?

Have you ever written or read something that was “beautiful?” What made it beautiful? Was it written for a perceived audience? Will you share it with us?

Thank you again for taking the time to consider my blog. If you have any comments and suggestions, I am anxious to hear them.

Marcus McGee
genus irritabile vatum

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