As you saw in posts like Busting the Cliche and Just a Day at the Office, knowing your reader is about so much more than who will be buying your books. Hopefully, these articles give you some insight into why you want to meet this reader well before you put out that final draft of your manuscript.
Both of these articles address the question of voice in some respect. Voice is something that many new writers I work with struggle to understand, and it is difficult to define in concrete terms. Generally speaking, voice refers to the way that a writer speaks in their writing – their particular way of expressing her or himself, the words they choose, and the way they put those words together.
While it is common to think a writer has a single voice across all genres, that is not exactly true. Just as you don’t talk with your friends the same way you would talk with your parents or your children, voice also changes to some degree depending on what you’re writing and who you’re writing to as I had to explain to my scientific friend. How do you know you’ve used the right tone for your reader if you don’t define the reader until after you’ve finished the book?
There’s some blurring of the lines of course, but you wouldn’t expect an academic article to start throwing around street jargon any more than you would expect your homeless character to suddenly break out in a carefully cited defense of M theory. It could happen, of course, but there should be some reason why it does and perhaps some warning or explanation for why you’re breaking out of the expected, why you’re busting the cliche in this particular way. Knowing who your reader is will help you know when and how to do this.
Like it or not, your reader has some relatively specific expectations from you as soon as they decide to read what you’ve put out there. It starts with where you’ve placed it. The language you use in Scientific American is going to be different from what you’d use for The Journal of Biology and Life Sciences even if the topic is exactly the same.
The structure of your writing will be different, too. For example, if you’re writing an academic paper, the typical structure is to start with a teaser, summarize your argument, present your argument and end with your conclusions. A newspaper article will rearrange this a bit – teaser, summary, conclusion, and then argument.
This applies to books, too. Younger readers or those just seeking to escape reality for a bit will want to see a more straightforward sequence of events from beginning to end. More mature readers may prefer a more abstract approach with less emphasis on sequence and more on examining relationships. Knowing which kind of reader you’re speaking to will help you decide on a direction of thought as well as how to believably break away from the expected.
What do you struggle with most in trying to understand your reader?