When writing nonfiction, you need to know your audience. As a writing coach of primarily nonfiction and memoir, I’m struck by how often writers with good minds and creative ideas, try so hard to appeal to a wide audience that they fail to know their audience and risk writing to nobody at all. Other times writers are so excited about their ideas that they find themselves writing to the smallest possible audience, because they present those ideas too early and too outside the mainstream. Unless the reader is persuaded of a line of thought logically and step-by-step, they are likely to reject any idea they don’t understand. Let me clarify.
Trying to sell a book by appealing to a wide range of diverse readers with differing interests and needs won’t work—and the content will fail with the readers—because what brings one audience to the book will not be of interest to another audience. For example, many scholars or academics set out to write a book that they want to be of interest to the common lay reader but also of interest to the scholar. Such books certainly can succeed, particularly in narrative nonfiction—consider Malcolm Gladwell’s diverse books that both scholars and lay people devour.
But if it’s a self-help book you’re writing—a book to help certain people, not a book about certain people—chances are it won’t be of interest to academics. That’s okay. You can write a different book for them. But if you are writing a book to help a particular group of people solve a problem, don’t make half the book about the history of the problem, policy changes, or how professionals can help their clients with that problem. Consider making some points about these things here and there and in the Introduction and Conclusion, but keep the focus on what the reader wants from you—help. How can you help them with their problem? Don’t write about them. Write to them. With each chapter, keep the focus on helping the reader, not talking about them.
In contrast, you might have a unique perspective about something that has been written about so much there is a general consensus of how the problem or issue is discussed. Maybe you want to introduce an entirely new way of looking at the problem. You very well might start off, in the title or the first lines, introducing your unconventional idea. That will get the reader’s attention. But then you need to pull back. Why? Because your reader probably shares the conventional view if it’s pretty much all they’ve heard about it. If you denounce that view right off the bat and then proceed to hammer it home, they will feel insulted. When your reader feels insulted, they become angry—at you. And they stop reading.
Or maybe the only critique they’ve heard of the issue has been from a political or social perspective they don’t align with. While your view may be coming from an entirely different perspective, they aren’t going to wait to hear more. They are going to assume they know where you’re coming from and stop reading.
How do you persuade them to keep reading? Know your audience. What matters to them? What do they value? How can you frame your perspective in terms of those values? After stating your unconventional perspective, you want to pull back, so that you can guide the reader along to your way of thinking. Make points that they are likely to agree on. Don’t simply denounce a perspective you are challenging—acknowledge the points you do agree with. Acknowledge the facts. Acknowledge the reader’s concerns. Acknowledge the problem.
Then, and only then, do you discuss what’s so problematic about the conventional ways of addressing the problem. Introduce “new information” which might lead them to rethink their assumptions. Introduce a new perspective that doesn’t challenge the reader’s fundamental needs, interests and values—the needs, interests, and values that have led them to care about the problem in the first place.
And write in a language the reader will understand. Your basic lay reader—even if college educated—does not want jargon. No professional terms, no academic voice. I’ll write more about this point in my next blog post, but for now, just keep in mind that you want to talk to your reader in a language they will understand—and be moved by.
Finally, in order to know your audience, you need to know why they would want to read your book. I don’t mean think of all the many different types of people who will want to read your book for so many different reasons—it’s a fascinating topic, it’s socially relevant, it will advance knowledge and solve the riddles of the universe, human psyche, and reverse the aging process—think instead of your most likely reader. What do they want to know? What interests them? And most importantly, it always comes back to asking yourself, what is their problem and how can you help them with it?
Readers like to read about themselves and their problems. They like to read books written by people they’d like to hang out with. And they like to read books they understand and agree with—even if they don’t yet understand what you are writing about or agree with your initial premise. Your task is to guide them along, page by page, in a way that gets them eager to know more. Kidnap your reader with your captivating writing, and hold them in your book with every page and every point until by the time they close your book, you can set them free—knowing they will eagerly follow you straight into your next book.