The Audience, the Audience, the Audience

One hot summer day I perched on the edge of a minimally-padded chair, back stiffening as I took in the prosecutor’s closing argument. I was a petit juror in the Washington DC Superior Court. And the prosecutor had a baseball.

He clapped the baseball in his right hand onto his left palm, as though punctuating his final reminder to the jury: the evidence, The Evidence, THE EVIDENCE.

I imagine the baseball was a last-minute prop decision as the attorney left home that morning. It wasn’t relevant to the alcohol-and-drug-infused munchie break gone horribly wrong we’d heard about all the previous week (the weapon in that story was a gun, not a baseball). Still, it got my attention.

The evidence, the evidence, the evidence—a lawyer’s refrain. Realtors, too, have their own famous refrain: Location, location, location. And in publishing I’d like to think that authors, editors, illustrators, and well, pretty much everyone involved in producing reading materials are ultimately concerned with the audience. The audience, The Audience, THE AUDIENCE.

photo of a courtroom jury box

Assuming at least 12 people are going to read your book, challenge yourself to describe who they are, in detail. What are their interests? What are their needs as readers?

Do you need to consider audience in everything you write? Even something straightforward like, say, a cookbook? Yes, you do. The Sacramento Bee recently ran an article by David Mas Masumoto in their Views on Food series that illustrates this point beautifully. Masumoto reflected on his experience writing a peach cookbook. Here is a sampling of the audience characteristics he took into account:

Do the recipes require the cook to run out to Whole Foods to search for a special herb? Do the recipes assume access to higher end equipment? And how does that mirror the values of the recipe writer? For example, what tools does the typical cook have? Do you write a recipe that requires a Dutch oven or dough hooks or include an oblique reference to a KitchenAid? Again, a moment of values clarification: This cookbook has the feel of a working-class hand-mixer-and-blender-kitchen pedigree.

Since this was a book about peaches, we quickly realized that on the farm, we’re spoiled by access to the ripest, softest and best peaches. But the recipes needed to be written with “the typical” in mind, with allowances – such as sweetness and firmness – embedded in instructions. Not all peaches are created equal.

What audience are you trying to reach with your book? Everyone? Wrong answer.

Even jurors, who are supposed to represent a broad swath of the public, are carefully vetted. Like home cooks and peaches, not all readers are created equal. Their needs and goals are diverse, as are their abilities and outside resources.

Are you trying to reach readers under 30? Great! So that reference to a wringer washing machine…yeah, you might want to flesh that out a bit. What does a wringer machine look like? How much physical effort does it require to use? How many garments per minute or per hour can it wring out? You don’t have to spell out every detail, but you should find a way to work in a few basic facts so your target reader isn’t left shrugging (or putting down the book to go a-Googling).

Are you writing for moms of newborns who need to read in quick snatches at odd times of day? Or (let’s be honest here) while they’re sitting on the toilet? Great! Consider using lots of headings to break things up, and include plenty of laughs.

Here’s a quick exercise for you, based on a cookbook I happen to have on my shelf at home, but rarely use: What audience is this book for? What audience is it NOT for?

cookbook on preserving food called Salt Sugar Smoke

For students on a budget? Probably not! For people who have leisure time and listen to NPR? Ding-ding-ding!


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