1. Identify your actual reader, and then build out a persona.
No matter the project, build out a “persona” that outlines who your core audience member is. (This can include their biblical literacy level, their hobbies, who they likely follow online, what books they probably read, what their family situation might be like, where they shop, where they live, their income level, and so on). Not every single person who reads your work will fit the bill in the end, but a general idea of who you are speaking to will help your writing stay on track. With certain writing gigs, sometimes online platforms outline their audience for you. If they don’t, ask them for an overview of the type of reader that the platform serves.
This “persona” helps you remain faithful to the people you want your words to hit. Are you writing to the 25-45 year old white woman in the American south who grew up in church, shops at Target, and spends her extra time with a Starbucks Frappuccino? Or the 25-45 year old woman of color in the Pacific northwest who grew up thinking Christians are weird, only shops locally, and spends her extra time volunteering at the local community garden? They might be the same gender or age. They might live in the same country. But trust me, they speak different languages. The same goes for a lower-income American pastor in the rural southeast who grew up in a small, tight-knit family steeped in evangelical culture compared to a middle-class Mexican pastor in urban California whose large-family upbringing was heavily influenced by Catholicism. Again. Same job. Same gender. Same country. Different languages. One might speak fish and the other might speak water. It’s your job to know the difference.
One way I create a persona is by jotting down a name on a piece of paper—someone I know personally that represents the audience I’m going for—and stick it to my computer so I can see that name while I write. When I take breaks, I’ll review my material and ask: “Can the person on that sticky note understand everything I just wrote?” No? Enter in the fantastic phase of wordcraft called re-writing!
2. Identify your “default” readers and avoid them like the plague.
Now that you know who your actual readers are, it’s time to introduce you to their arch enemy: your default readers.
What do I mean here? Just like a car will gravitate off course without a steady hand on the wheel, you will gradually veer toward whoever your “default” audience is unless you constantly keep your actual reader in view.
Want to know one of the most common default audiences out there, lurking in the shadows of your headspace? Your peers.
How so, you ask? Let’s consider an example. Let’s assume Billy has a heart to write material that disciples “average church folk.” He loves the local church, and he wants to help edify the people in the pew! Great. Then why is the latest situation or controversy on, say, Twitter, making it in Billy’s writing to them?
We all know that the average church member has zero clue (nor interest) on what’s happening in the Twitterverse. Billy’s ministry friends might know about the most recent train wreck on there. His seminary pals might joke about it in water-cooler moments. It might feel like the biggest deal in the world to him right now because Christian Twitter is where his peers are (or perhaps those he hopes to become peers with). It’s where he proves he is clever, or relevant, or right, or godly, or prophetic, or whatever it is he want to prove to his peers that he is. It’s where he goes to matter.
So, as he writes, though he may not mention it by name, “The Twitter” and its happenings start weaving its way here and there into his references, illustrations, and jokes. And then, eventually, it bleeds over into the rest of the material, until the whole project is actually one big attempt to impress his peers (or would-be peers), and has left the average church member in the dust. Just like that, the actual reader is upstaged by the default reader, who is left unserved, confused, or disinterested.
Billy began by speaking water, but deviated somewhere along the way and started speaking fish. Don’t be like Billy. To prioritize your actual reader, do the hard work of figuring out the biggest thing going on in their lives. Go to their water cooler. Learn their references, their trainwrecks, and where they go to matter. Write to your reader, not your peers (or whomever your default audience tends to be).
If you’re human, you’ll make this mistake more than a few times, because our default audience lives on immortally in our headspace, ready and waiting to scrutinize everything we do and say. They are the people we ultimately want to approve of us—whether they be our peers, parents, churches, spouses, workmates, or otherwise. As you chug along, you’ll veer toward them, as we all do at some point or another. So what can you do to get back on track? Use the persona you created! It’s why you built it to begin with—to keep your true readers in clear view and return to them when you stray.
“When I preach I regard neither doctors nor magistrates… I have all my eyes on the servant maids and on the children.” — Martin Luther
3. Use the native language of your actual reader
If you and your reader already speak the same native language, wonderful! However, if you don’t, this may mean taking a deeper dive into their “vernacular,” as it were. You’ll have to stumble around like Lucy to find the right words that your audience can best understand. (Keep in mind that the level at which you prioritize this will change depending on genre. With fiction, you’ll likely do this at a much higher degree, especially if your protagonist is very different from you. In non-fiction, you want a balance represented where you still sound like you, but are also clearly familiar with the language, world, and situation of the audience).
A great example of a fiction author who did this well is Laurie Halse Anderson, whose award-winning young adult novel Speak was published 1999. The story puts you in the head and life of a ninth-grade girl who grapples with the aftermath of a particularly traumatic event in her life (I won’t give away more than that, in case you haven’t read it!). The author went through the same traumatic event as her protagonist, so you’d think that writing the novel likely came easily to Laurie.
Laurie’s audience was young adults—which means her protagonist, a fourteen-year-old in 1999, was going to have to make a lot of sense to present-day teenagers. Naturally, it had been a while since Laurie was fourteen. Not only did age and time separate her from her audience, so did language (as you can imagine, ninth graders spoke quite differently in 1999 compared to when Laurie was a young teen). So, Laurie had to do some research. For the sake of her audience (and to do her protagonist justice), Laurie immersed herself in the native tongue, mindset, and context of current ninth-graders. She went about this a myriad of ways, one of which was to frequent local fast food joints around 9 or 10pm on the weekends, grab some grub, pull out her scratch pad, and take notes on the conversations going on all around her.
She has since been lauded for her remarkable ability to speak in a “local” language that young adult readers deeply resonate with—to such a point that the book has become a required reading text in public high school classrooms far and wide. Laurie did the work of speaking the language of her intended audience, and it paid off.
As for a non-fiction or theological type of genre, look no further than Martin Luther. Yes, he was decorated with theological accomplishments and degrees, and he spoke the high language of the church in that day—Latin. Yet in much of his preaching and writing, while he stayed true to his own style, pacing, and intensity, his works drip with the vernacular terms that his German hearers and readers could understand. Just hear his own words when it comes to the approach he takes with his target audience:
When I preach I regard neither doctors nor magistrates, of whom I have above forty in my congregation; I have all my eyes on the servant maids and on the children. And if the learned men are not well pleased with what they hear, well, the door is open.
—Martin Luther (quoted in Christian History, issue 34, page 27)
4. Identify before introducing.
On top of using the native language of the reader, try to use their points (or people) of reference—this shows them that you really do understand their world.
For example, think about the article I’m typing right this very minute. It is hosted on a seminary website. So, it would make a lot of sense for me to reference the kind of thinker or literary work that would be easily recognized and respected by freshman, seminarians, and professors alike (The Chronicles of Narnia byC.S. Lewis). It would also make sense to include a joke or situation that all of these parties have either experienced themselves or can easily imagine (an event for PhD students). Pulling an illustration from the ministries of Jesus and Paul would be another bridge-builder for this crowd of readers, as well as referencing the “water-coolers” they hang around to pass the time (Twitter).
Now, I could probably get away with introducing this sort of readership to one new writer or literary work (the novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson), but I would have to earn the right to do that by demonstrating along the way that I truly do “get” this audience. If I honor my readers first, and prove I know their world enough to speak to it, then I will in turn receive the honor of introducing them to something new.
As you write, think of the persona you built out. Hold that name in your mind, and ask, “Would _______ recognize any of these references, quotes, jokes, illustrations, or heroes?” Identify with your readers on common ground early—and far more often—than you introduce them to new territory. If you do, they’ll be far more likely to go with you to new places. If you introduce more often than you identify, you’ll certainly arrive at a new frontier, but you’ll be there alone. To take your reader with you, identify, identify, identify.
5. Invite the feedback of an audience member
One way to know if you are hitting the mark is to finish the first draft of your project and then send it to someone who, give or take, fits the persona you built. There’s no better way to tell if your work did the trick than to ask a core audience member!
Editor’s Note: Come back next week, and we’ll conclude this series with some insights on how Christ can be our guide.