As an acquisitions editor for a publishing house, I often hear this question: “What’s one big mistake I can avoid—a common error you see people making in writing?”
Before answering, a little girl always springs up in my mind—one who is stumbling around in the foreign snow of a far-off land she discovered through the backend of a closet. Yes, Lucy. Remember that time she meets Mr. Tumnus in Narnia? In a most endearing way, she stammers to find some sort of common language between the two of them. She tries to communicate that she’s a girl (and clearly expects Tumnus to understand the word) while the fawn’s preference is daughter of Eve. Lucy finally discovers that, alas, Tumnus knows the word human, and both are happy to finally settle on this term as their common ground. Lucy then repeats the same adorable blunder as she holds out her hand for a handshake. The fawn looks at her hand in a puzzled way—just as puzzled as he was with the word girl—and wonders what she is doing. Lucy keeps forgetting she’s not communicating to those of her own ilk.
Lucy is a classic example of a universal principle. Namely, we all naturally gravitate toward our own native language as we endeavor to communicate, often employing terms or gestures that our hearer can’t quite understand. And so once I return back to earth from my split-second journey to Narnia, I smilingly reply to this question with some version of “not having a clue who you are communicating with,” “not knowing your audience,” or “writing to the wrong reader.”
This usually instills either lively curiosity or immense fear in writers—”but how can I ensure I’m writing to the right audience? How do you know when you’re writing to your reader instead of someone else? What’s the silver bullet?”
Write to your reader. Otherwise you are person who wants to say something but doesn’t know who they are saying it to.
You Have More Experience Than You Think
There’s a lot that could be said on that subject, but here’s one comforting thing I always try to mention before the conversation goes any further: you’re far more experienced than you think you are. (In fact, you’ve actually got a leg up on sweet Lucy, as your audience isn’t another species!) Take courage. You’ve done this before. More than that, you do it all the time.
The words you type in a text-thread with your college pals sound quite different than the ones you string together in an email to your boss, which both sound different than the comment you post on your neighborhood’s social media page. The same goes for the note you leave in your kid’s homework folder compared to the one you leave on a random person’s car after you accidentally nick their bumper.
In each of these cases, you reflexively identify your listeners and then employ culturally and relationally appropriate phrases, pacing, and language to address them—all without even thinking about it. Our audience can shift multiple times a day (if not dozens or hundreds, now that the digital age has connected us to all sorts of tribes, groups, threads, and portals). And as those audiences shift, we naturally adjust to them to help minimize friction and static in communication. And when we don’t do this, we immediately feel the ramifications.
Don’t believe me? Just recall the last time you made a joke that didn’t land well or tried to get directions from a person who speaks a foreign language. While the joke could’ve been a bad one to begin with, in all likelihood, the crickets at the punchline were probably due to your wisecrack simply landing on the wrong ears. What would’ve killed at your seminary’s event for PhD students didn’t quite cut the mustard at your parents’ neighborhood barbeque. And the guy who should be giving you directions right about now instead of that puzzled look? You didn’t ask the question in words he could understand. You tried to say girl, but you weren’t speaking fawn. Put more bluntly, you didn’t consider your listener.
Loving the Reader As Yourself
Audience, audience, audience. We honor our audience every day in our ordinary rhythms, and we should do this in our writing, too. Remember, if you can do this on autopilot, you can certainly do it in more intentional ways with your writing!
So, write to your reader. Otherwise you are person who wants to say something but doesn’t know who they are saying it to. You are simply “shouting into the void,” as publishing professionals might quip. This doesn’t mean you can’t lead your readers somewhere if you want to introduce them to a new concept or a new word. Certainly, you should write like you. But you are only half the equation of the experience. A reader is on the other end of the line, and if you’re a Christian writer, you are under orders to love your reader as yourself.
If you’re a Christian writer, you are under orders to love your reader as yourself.
The difference in writing for and writing to
Notice I said you should write to your readers. I did not say write for them. No matter who your “for” is—perhaps you write for the Lord, or you enjoy writing for yourself, or you are writing for you’re the sake of your kids or a certain issue you deeply care about—your “to” should be an identifiable audience.
The two aren’t at odds. You can be faithful and unmoving regarding your “for” while remaining agile and relatable with your “to.” For example, you can write unflinchingly for the Lord and yet still change up the way you’d write a seminary research paper compared to a small group guide for your local church. You can write loyally for the issue you most care about while also incorporating the language used on various sides of that issue as you seek to bridge divides.
Consider Jesus and Paul as examples. When speaking to fishermen, Jesus put spiritual things in terms of, well, fish. When speaking to a woman who frequented a well, he used the imagery of—you guessed it—water. Same Jesus. Different listeners. And we don’t have to look far to see Paul doing the same. When sharing the gospel with a Jewish audience, he naturally pulls in stories of their historical heroes. When sharing the gospel with Greeks, he instead uses their own poetry as a conversation-starter, as they wouldn’t recognize or revere the patriarchs of Jewish history. Same Paul. Different audience. Same “for.” Different “to.”
So how can we follow this example? How can we love our reader as ourselves, or ensure we are speaking to our audience? Next week, I’ll share a handful of practical tips.
Editor’s Note: Come back next week for part 2 in this series from Ashley Gorman.