How the “Ideal Reader” Myth Hurts Your Writing Process

How the “Ideal Reader” Myth Hurts Your Writing Process

A lot of writing advice encourages you to market to your audience by defining your ideal reader.

It says to think of your reader as one person, create a profile and write for that person.

You’ll even find templates for defining your ideal reader — fake head shots and all. They’ll ask you to name the reader and list their demographics, interests and job. They’ll ask you to explain why this reader is totally in love with what you write.

The problem? This exercise does nothing to help you understand what actual readers want from you.

The “ideal reader” myth

When you set out to define your “ideal reader,” you’ve probably already decided what you want to write — maybe even written it.

You’re sitting on that romance novel, self-help book or blog about what cats have taught you about love, and now you’re ready to market it. So you dream up a reader who fits the bill. They’re male or female, between ages 18 and 54, probably own cats and are single. So, obviously, they’ll love your blog.

Voila. You’ve got your ideal reader.

Except that’s useless. All you’ve done is reverse engineer an audience for yourself, and you can’t do that with real people.

If you want to attract actual readers, you’re going to have to do it the other way around: Learn what real readers want, and write it for them.

How to write what your audience wants to read

To understand who your audience (actually) is and how to write for them, I’ve come up with a simple exercise.

Borrowing from the way software developers plan projects by first working to understand their end users through a user story, I define readers with what I call a “reader story.”

The reader story is a simple way to understand who you write for, what they need from you and why.

The exercise might feel similar to fantasizing about your ideal reader, but it’s goal is different. Instead of inventing a reader for something you’re determined to write, the reader story helps you plan your writing around helping the audience achieve some goal.

To create your reader story, fill in this statement about the typical person you expect to read your work:

As a [type of person], they want [some goal] so that [some reason].

For example:

As a millennial mother of young kids,

They want advice on raising children, self-care and relationships,

So that they can balance being a parent with a full-time job while still enjoying me-time and a relationship with their partner.

That reader story might drive content for a parenting and lifestyle site like Scary Mommy.

If you don’t know anything about the typical person who might read your work, do your research before creating a reader story. Don’t invent a reader you hope exists.

How to use your reader story to plan writing projects

Once you create a reader story, it should drive all the decisions you make about your writing.

Does that blog topic help the reader achieve some goal? Does that book cover appeal to their some reason? Are those marketing platforms frequented by this type of person?

Write down your reader story, and stick it somewhere you’ll see every time you write.

Keeping your reader’s needs top of mind can help you make decisions about:

  • Which topics to tackle to get your story across.
  • Your goals for what you write.
  • Which products make sense for disseminating your story or ideas.
  • Which platforms are best for distributing your work.
  • The tone and voice you’ll use to speak to your readers.
  • When and how to release your work to have the greatest impact.

Developers rely on the user story to focus on features customers actually want — and leave behind the stuff that’s super cool technologically but totally unnecessary in real life.

Use the reader story the same way in your writing. You might love the anecdote you’ve found to open that article about your grandmother’s butternut squash soup recipe… but does it serve the reader’s goal of, you know, making a good butternut squash soup?

Yeah, the reader story will make you get real honest with yourself about the value of what you’re writing.

For more guidance on using your reader story to plan writing projects and answer those big questions for everything you write, I invite you to download my free guide: “How to Write Anything (Well).”

Filed Under: Craft
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