Writers are often advised to identify their audience. What does that mean, though?

Suppose I’m writing a grocery shopping list because my roommate is going to the store for me. My “audience” ought to be my roommate. He shares much of my background knowledge and many of my assumptions (for example, our dietary preferences, whether we are likely to share a meal and who’s going to cook it, what the food should cost, whether our refrigerator is working, etc.). I might simply write “tomatoes for lasagna” and expect that he will decide on the appropriate number of tomatoes to buy, along with remembering to check if we already have onion before he leaves for the store.

But suppose I write that he should buy “lots of small tomatoes so we can make a lasagna that is actually good”. My roommate scratches his head. Was there a lasagna I once didn’t like? Am I criticizing his cooking? Is bad lasagna the result of not buying the right kind of tomatoes, or not enough of them? What will happen if I’m not satisfied with the tomatoes or the lasagna? In this case, I still “know my audience” insofar as I give the shopping list to my roommate, but somehow I haven’t quite written it for him.

gremlinIn this situation, my roommate is the “market,” the one I’m selling or distributing my writing to. But in the second example, I didn’t write to my market. I wrote to my “gremlin.” The gremlin is some other entity in my imagination.

If I suffered a tomato fiasco years ago, I may still have strong tomato gremlins in my imagination, and my roommate may be unaware of them. Writing a shopping list may dredge up those memories. If I start talking directly to my personal “gremlin,” however, I must notice that I’m doing so and stop myself because my “market” won’t make sense of what I’m saying. It would be as if I were talking to someone in my mind who is no longer present, and the person who is present may think I’m a little crazy. My opinions and arguments will seem mysterious or random to him. They are not shared assumptions, so I either need to explain them more fully or hold my tongue entirely.

There’s a real-life audience to whom you ultimately plan to show your work, and there’s a shadow audience in your imagination while you’re writing each word. The shadows are full of gremlins. Make sure they don’t lead you too far astray. Your shadow audience should resemble your intended real-life audience as closely as possible. Let this be a cautionary tale.

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