Stephen King Asks Who You Are Writing For

Photo: Phozographer / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

We all have different reasons for writing. Some of us write because we have too many words in our head, others simply enjoy the practice of doing so. I write what I want to read. I think of a topic, a theme, or a character, and then I wonder how a story about them would unfold. I want to know what happens to them, and so I write the story myself. Regardless of why we’re writing, there prevails the question of who we are writing for. Who do you picture reading your book?

Many wil argue that isn’t a vital aspect of writing. That instead of imagining someone reading it, you must focus on the practice of writing, of getting words onto the page, sitting down, and doing the work rather than fantasizing about what could come from it. But I disagree with these people, and so does Stephen King.

Who is Stephen King writing for?

In his book, ‘On Writing: A Memoir of Craft’, Stephen King outlines his many beliefs and pieces of advice for writing. These range from the practical, from the process of creating the first draft or his experiences with querying, to more in-depth looks at the process of writing itself, of creating a character or a story from a mere concept. He takes us through ‘Carrie’ and how two images came together to form a book that has amazed millions and been adapted into a film and a Broadway musical — I recommend checking out the soundtrack! In one section, Stephen focuses on the concept that we’re all writing for someone. To many of us, it is someone we know, someone close to us who will likely be the first to read our work. To others, this person may be a symbol of a larger group, a readership we wish to attract. Whoever your target, the point is that you must have such a person in mind when writing to ensure that you are crafting something that can not only be read but treasured.

“Someone — I can’t remember who, for the life of me — once wrote that all novels are really letters aimed at one person. As it happens, I believe this. I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking ‘I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?’ For me that first reader is my wife, Tabitha.” — Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of Craft (Affiliate link)

Stephen is lucky to find that reader in his wife, who not only supports him but also favors the genre he writes in. Many will not be that lucky. I have a partner who supports my writing but is far from an avid reader, struggling to read a book per year. Others may be worse off, with partners who dismiss their writing and don’t support their efforts.

By having this focus throughout, Stephen can consider the intended effect of scenes, visualize how the dialogue will be interpreted, and use it in his writing. The results are clear, as Stephen King has become a New York Times bestselling author, known for incredible works such as ‘It’, ‘Salem’s Lot’ and ‘The Shining’.

The benefits of knowing your reader

There are numerous benefits to considering your reader when writing a novel, article, or any piece of text. It feeds into the decision-making process and can ensure that your text is received precisely how you intended it to be. Here are some of the benefits to knowing your reader when writing:

1. It allows you to talk to your readers rather than at them

By considering your reader, you can write the text to their level and understanding. They won’t feel lectured or patronized but rather understood. The tone of voice is vital in writing, so ensure that you’re using theirs.

2. What do they want from a book?

This is something you need to consider when writing. What is vital to your target reader? Maybe they look for complex characters or the chance to be surprised. Perhaps they’re looking for witty language or hidden easter eggs throughout your work. Think of who they are so that you can ensure you’re crafting something that they would like.

3. Appropriate references

By knowing who your reader is, you can consider what else they know. If you’re aiming for an older audience, like your parents, then you might not want to name drop Iggy Azalea or the song WAP casually. If you’re writing for young adults, consider that they might be less likely to know an extremely niche rock song or understand the difficulties of motherhood. This isn’t to say that you can’t mention such things, but that you need to introduce them rather than assume your reader will know them.

4. The practicalities

By knowing your reader, you can recognize the type of book you’re writing. The length of a novel like this, the number of characters or relationships between them, even the size of a chapter; all such practicalities can be determined by recognizing your reader, and this is before we even get started on marketing your book!

5. Knowing who should proofread

If you don’t have an ideal reader in mind when writing, you’ll finish your first draft and get several friends or family members to read it — at least, you really should! If these are all very different readers (e.g., one bookworm, one who never reads, one sci-fi fan, and one young adult reader), you’re going to receive such varied advice and feedback from them. This can be helpful but can also create more issues in editing. One person felt it was too long, while the other didn’t think it was long enough. One person couldn’t relate to your main character, while the other felt they were spot on and wouldn’t want you to change a thing about them. Who do you listen to? Well, you listen to your ideal reader. If you’re writing an edgy piece of literary fiction, it should be read by people who like similar books, as they can give you the most accurate feedback to your audience.

Who are you writing for?

I mentioned that I like to write books that I would want to read. That makes my ideal reader… well, me! That could be really simple, as then I would only tap into my own mind when editing. But this would produce a biased and poorly edited book, so I have to consider others who enjoy the same books as I do. Friends who read a lot and can provide honest feedback. At least, as honest as it can get from a friend! This also means that I can choose the right editor for my work and give comparison titles.

You may not be your ideal reader; that’s okay and probably even a good thing. So how do you work out who your ideal reader is then? Consider the following points and see how many you can answer; this will produce a great sketch for them.

  • Approximate age
  • Approximate sex
  • Approximate economic status
  • Approximate social position
  • Approximate education
  • Approximate values
  • How many books they read per year
  • Books they enjoyed reading

You don’t need to have all the answers, but rather the ones most pressing to your work. For example, young adult novels rely heavily on age and similar titles. Adult books may be more focused on education and economic status, given the language and themes present. Values are also very pressing unless you plan to challenge them. There is no strict guideline for a book or even a whole genre. Simply try to work it out as you go.

An excellent exercise for this could be to take a few comparison titles and work out what their readers’ traits would look like. You can also check out reviews and see what people liked and didn’t like about a book, as they sometimes even describe themselves inadvertently through that. Checking out reviews of books that you like can also be great in that it reminds you that no book or work is loved by all, so you shouldn’t take negative feedback too harshly.

You shouldn’t stress too much about working out who your ideal reader is, as you already have one, whether or not you realize this. When you’re writing, it’s to someone specific. You just need to tap into who that person actually is, who you’re thinking of as you type away fiercely. Begin to place together the puzzle pieces of that identity, and your writing will grow focused and refined. Stephen credits many of his best works to the assistance of his ideal reader, Tabitha, and how that allowed him to remain consistent throughout his writing. If you’re interested, I definitely recommend checking out his book for more writing advice.

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