Archive: May 16th, 2010

Who Are You Talking To?

In case you’ve forgotten, here’s one of the cardinal rules of writing:

Don’t Forget Your Audience.

This should be obvious. If you’re writing for children, there will be language or graphic scenes that you don’t need to detail. If you’re writing romance novels, on the other hand, you can go into (ahem) a lot more detail.

If you’re writing an article geared toward an elite group of highly educated people in a particular field, you can use a lot more jargon and industry-specific language than you could if you were writing the same article for the general public.

Newspapers are usually geared toward adult readers who presumably have a running knowledge of current events. Magazines and periodicals aim for people with common interests, such as photography, cars, fashion, their home town. Blogs can be directed toward general readers (everyone who thinks dogs are cute!), or focused on very specific people (fans of Holst’s “The Planets,” writers trying to get published, knitters who love making socks).

The point, though, is that you almost always have a specific audience.

But, how do you write differently for different groups?

This is harder to define, but I’d say it comes down to three elements. They’re all related, and the borders are fuzzy, but here’s how I think of them:

Tone.

Friendly. Cool. Informed. Gracious. Intelligent. Condescending. This is your tone of voice.

Think about this. When you get a phone call from a stranger and only have their voice with which to judge how capable they are, how helpful or convincing … it’s their tone that’s going to have the most impact. Do they sound tired? Bored? Excited? Interested?

You could have two marketers call you with the exact same pitch, but one will turn you off, and one will pique your interest … it all comes down to Tone. You’re going to be drawn to the one who sounds friendly and capable, the one who sounds interested in what she is doing and eager to help you.

The same thing goes with writing–it’s your choice how you sound, but that old saw about catching more flies with honey holds true … let your tone of voice show that you care about what you do.

Voice.

This seems similar to Tone, I know, but I think of Voice as how you use the language. A person addressing a conference of etymologists, for example, is going to dust off the fancy vocabulary, like bringing out the good silver for Christmas … but a GOOD writer is going to make that presentation interesting and entertaining, regardless of syllable count. A bad writer? Um, you remember those dense, dry, incomprehensible text books from school, don’t you? The ones that were so darn educated you couldn’t understand a word they said?

Writing can be made more or less accessible simply by the complexity of the language. Are the sentences long or short? Simple or complex? Are the paragraphs long, solid blocks of text? You get the idea. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t sound “smart” and “friendly” at the same time. Or that, if you’re writing for a professional journal that you can’t let your humanity show.

Vocabulary.

All the writing mavens love to tell you to keep your vocabularly simple–that the high-falutin’ words are just going to make you inaccessible, or confusing, or whatever the reason-of-the-week is. Not that I’m denying the truth of this, mind you–too many people simply don’t know what to do with one of those high-priced, fancy vocabularies, any more than they can drive a Lamborghini perfectly on the first try after a lifetime of Chevys.

My point, though, is that sometimes you have to gear your vocabulary to your audience. When talking to a child, we tend to downshift the vocabulary level to make it accessible. “Why don’t you go out to play?” instead of “Perhaps you would care to consider transferring your recreation to an outdoor venue?” Is your vocabulary held to a reasonable level that makes it accessible, yet not so “dumbed down” that you sound like you are constantly talking to a toddler?

I’m all for stretching people’s vocabularies–the more the better–and it never worries me to use a word or two that my readers might not have met before. I’m happy to provide the introduction. But there’s a difference between being in a room filled with familiar faces with just a stranger or two, and a room filled with strangers. If you fill up your writing with words that your readers probably don’t recognize … they’re going to ditch the party and decide to go hang out with their friends, instead.

There’s the built-in censorship element, too, of not using certain types of language in front of young, impressionable ears and eyes. Of writing in a gentlemanly or ladylike manner in such a way that your grandmother could read your work without blushing.

Don’t forget who you’re writing for.

What do you think? Do you write differently for different audiences?