Target Your Audience by Answering These Six Questions

Clarens 10 Mrt 034

Writing is a bit like hunting. Though I have to confess I have never hunted, and I won’t … love Bambi too much to do anything but buy my meat packaged and reasonably bloodless at the shop. But getting back to the point:  writing is like hunting in the sense that you cannot just load your keyboard and hike through the woods, hoping a reader or two might cross your path.


Not that easy.

You need to be writing for someone. Granted, sometimes that someone you are writing for might be yourself, your dad or your favourite aunt. But let’s suppose that you want to make a living by writing for others.

So … a few questions you might want to know the answers to as you are setting out on your hunt:


Are my readers bright or not so bright?

Now that seems like a terrible question to ask. It simply smells of bias and prejudice. But, between us girls and boys, it is important to know if you are writing for the code-speaking elite or writing for the rest of us.

So, if you are writing for the rest of us, make sure that you achieve a happy balance between leaving us groping in the dark and showering us with adverbs and adjectives galore.

You can decide when you want to spew forth majestically, but most of the time you can simply say what you mean. It works well for Stephen King and company, doesn’t it?

Your job as a writer is most often to observe that which other people simply don’t see and then draw their attention to it. You don’t need to decorate it with roses. They will be amazed at noticing what they have been missing all along.


Are my readers reading a book or online content?

There is a difference. When a reader settles into a book it is as if she or he is taking a walking holiday along a strange coastline. Plenty of time to stop and drink in the sights and eat at funny little restaurants.

But when a reader reads online, most often it can be likened to a bus tour through seven European countries in three glorious, sun-filled days. Online reading is all about skimming and not that much about depth. Not all too often. So give the online reader plenty of white space and big headings. And say what you need to say. Fast.


Are my readers male or female?

Now this one is tricky. A great reader is sexless, ageless, without bias. But maybe you do want to write for a specific audience. Men might read about how girls wax their armpits, but most often they won’t. So, at times,  you can write with the assumption that the person reading it is male, or female.

Otherwise, don’t go all male on your readers. Don’t make sexist jokes or below-the-belt innuendos. Except, of course, if that is exactly what your writing is all about. You’ll have a following. But you will also cut yourself off from part of your possible audience.


Are my readers old or young?

Although the ideal reader is ageless, and the ideal copy is ageless, it is true that we all have references in our lives. If I said, “Freedom”, the word would trigger totally different symbols, songs and famous people in our minds if we are of different generations.

So if you are writing for a specific age group, keep this in mind. Don’t use your own references and assume that they will know all about Paul and John. They might go Beatles, or they might go Biblical.


Are my readers multicultural and if so, which cultures?

This is another tough one. Readers from different cultures find different things acceptable or unacceptable. If you are a good writer, you shouldn’t isolate yourself within your own culture, but really soak up some others so that when you write, you write without bias and prejudice. However, if you are biased and prejudiced and happy about it, well, then I guess you know the way ahead.

When writing for a multicultural audience, be aware of taboos and make sure that you don’t unintentionally offend. The easiest way is to ask a friend of a different culture to let you know if you have some cultural spinach in your teeth.


Why are you writing this?

This is the big question. If you are not sure why you are writing this, you will most definitely not convince anyone of anything. If you have a passion for your subject matter, your enthusiasm will sometimes make even your worst critic think.

Be sure of your reasons. If you are writing to inform, don’t waste time on personal confessions. If you are writing to inspire, don’t preach. If you are writing to entertain, don’t take out the holiday slides.

See the “ideal reader” in your mind’s eye when you start writing. Know him or her well. Then, once you start, look up from time to time and catch their eyes. If he or she is smiling and nodding and hanging on to your every word, you might be on the right track.

If you see fish-eyes, however, change your reader … or change your writing!


Creating characters

SASAPD Function 008

Kinds of characters

It sometimes happens that someone posts a group photo to Facebook and say “2002” and it’s Back to the Future all over again. The funny thing is that you really need the tags to remember some of the people, although they might have been sitting next to you in class for three years, or eating lunch at the same table and talking about sports and loves morning, noon and night.

But some you might know, immediately, intimately. You know their names, their habits, their likes and dislikes – anything and everything.

The same applies to characters. In really simple terms: you have the good guy and the bad guy and their respective friends and families.

The Good Guy

The trick is: the good guy shouldn’t be all good. And, of course, he doesn’t need to be a guy. Make sure that the good guy, like all of us, has a character flaw – something that will make cause conflict and get the action started or move the story along. Remember: the good guy doesn’t need to be your main character. The bad guy would do as well.

The Bad Guy

The bad guy shouldn’t be all bad. And gals can be as bad as guys. Just don’t assume that the bad gal needs to be sexy as well. Isn’t it funny how often writers seem to think that boobs in leather equals a good bad gal? Bad guys should also be multi-dimensional. A really great bad guy is one who has some good parts as well. That causes conflict in the reader – “I hated him, but now I understand why he is so horrible, and now I am not sure if I hate him any longer?”

The “friends and family”

The “friends and family” characters should add to the action, heighten the conflict, but not draw attention to themselves. They should serve as a spotlight for our main characters. Yes, we do need the funny old man with the cackly laugh to show the bad guy which way the good guy ran. But we don’t need the funny old man to say, “Sit down and let me tell you a bit about my years in the Great War.”  In fact, we don’t even need to see the egg smeared on his polka-dotted tie. Too much info!

Finding a character

Sometime a character will arrive at your doorstep, fully dressed and ready for action. That is a great gift and one you shouldn’t take for granted, because most of the time a character will have to be found, created from bits and pieces, a bit like a collage.

Creating a character

Your main character must be nice and fleshy, with unique traits and mannerisms, a specific look, a way of dealing with others, maybe even aspects such as a walking style or eating habit. For a story to be really memorable, a great plot would be part of the package, but the fact that you can just about pick up the phone and call the main character, would be the string that holds it together.

The main character can be bits and pieces of people you know or imagine. He can be inspired by a person you really know. He can be all imagined. He can grow out of an emotion (what would “anger” look like, if he had to walk down a busy road?) or be created from a theme (who would help me personify “forgiveness against all odds”?)

Adding meat to the bones

Once you know who the main characters are, you can start putting a bit of meat on the bones. The way you do this, will depend totally on who you are as a person.

You might do something visual, such as looking for photographs where aspects of the character are captured, or even making some drawings. You could collect things that symbolise something in the character (a feather that once was beautiful, but now is all gunky, might be a great reminder of your character’s past, and represent his present).

You could look at some audio clues – what music makes the character’s feet move: Opera? Folk? Metal? Pop?

And a sense of smell? What does the character smell like? Roses? Chicken livers? Brake fluid? Or which smells remind the character of someone or something important? Does she like eating toast because that is what she smelled when she woke up each morning and it reminds her of her dead husband? Or does he smoke cherry tobacco because it reminds him of his son who is living in Australia?

Keeping track

One of the reasons why an editor, or at least a fresh eye, is important is the horrible realisation that the colour of your character’s eyes has changed between Chapter 1 and 7. Or even that you sent a minor character on an errand and he simply got lost somewhere in the middle of the book, never to return.

You might want to keep track of some features of your characters. Use whatever works for you. Maybe a small card for each character. Or a table for each character on a sheet of paper. Or an Excel worksheet. But do write down some basics, such as:

  • Name, Surname/Last name, age, sex, etc.
  • Physical features: eye colour, hair colour, body (fat, thin, athletic), etc.
  • How is the character related to other characters?
  • Any quirks or mannerisms? Likes and dislikes? Hobbies?
  • Whatever else you think you might have to remember later on or that would add to the character’s background.


And do remember that anything that anyone writes about how to deal with characters are just guidelines. Find your own way. And sometimes, on a good-good day, a character might surprise you and knock on your door, all fleshed out and dressed to the nines.


vier dolfyne

Today is Freedom Day in South Africa. The “New South Africa” is 19 years old. And our home, like all homes with teenagers, echo with a great deal of door-slamming and illicit experimentation.

But hopefully that, too, will pass.

For freedom, even when it is being bent over double and tarred and feathered, is still sweet and full of life, energy and possibilities.

And that is, in teenspeak, “kinda like” writing.

For writing really is the greatest freedom there is. The ability to express what you feel, think or imagine is one of mankind’s greatest gifts.

Which is why it really is important to honour the gift by allowing your writing to reflect all your many facets. Some are easy to show to the world. They are the shiny, well-mannered parts of you, all dressed up in Sunday best and ready to meet the world with a friendly, polite “Great to meet you, Sir/Mam/Ms”.

But some are the dark cousins of the soul. Yes, you are free to hide them deep within corners of denial. But never forget, that you are also free to share them, purge them on white paper/screen.

Are you brave enough?


Robben Island

I have the greatest view. I seriously think so. The only contender would be someone living at the foot of Mount Everest.


Yet, my view carries my country’s past with me. The picture above shows Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for so many decades. It’s part of my view. In winter the sun sets right behind the island. In summer the island is a memory to the right of the sunset. (symbolic, hey?)

The daily joy of trying to see if the sea and sky and wind and clouds will conspire yet again to surprise me (never failed yet) … all of that has a twinge of … something in it.

I am not sure what the something is. I think it’s part of me. Part of having grown up white in Apartheid South Africa. Part of being ashamed of all the things my childhood heroes got up to on the other side of the censure board. Part of being tired of being ashamed about the core of who I am/was.

It’s part of my writing as well. It leaves me with a dry mouth of regret sometimes that the stories that I have to tell, no one particularly wants to listen to any more. Because the stories of this generation is politically incorrect.

Showing off

Showing off

I asked them to ‘show me what you can do’ and this was the result. Their passion and enthusiasm made me laugh so hard that this is just about the only picture that isn’t blurred. They contorted and grinned and tried to do insanely crazy stunts involving each other, the grass and the odd bucket.

And no, I have no idea what the bucket would have been used for originally.

But it made me think about how much passion and enthusiasm I still carry around inside. I am totally, eternally crazy about words and what you can do with these little black squiggles on a page, a piece of paper or a screen. And yet I find myself not doing splits and cartwheels and performing tricks in my quest for eternal fame and unimaginable fortune as a writer slash linguist.

I kinda do it sedately, as though I was a bit more than a century old or weighed double what I do.

And no, my weight is not the issue here.

So, tomorrow being the first of April, I thought I would dig around inside myself and see what happened to my passion and all the crazy tricks I had inside.

I plan to take them out for a spin, and a cartwheel or two and maybe one or two splits.

And if I find a bucket … I might just use that as well!

Finding time

Mom's typewriter
Mom’s typewriter

Ask writers why they write, and you’ll get different responses, from the wide-eyed, slightly scary ‘Because it is like breathing … I cannot live without it’ to the more jaded, yet outrageously hopeful ‘To earn some extra cash’ with all varieties of ‘To cleanse myself’ or even ‘To get my writer mom off my back’ peppered in there.

Whatever the reasons, whatever the excuses, whatever the driving forces … one thing is clear: writing takes time. There seems to be a bit of a correlation between the time you spend writing and the quality of the writing. Where this isn’t true, there will still be a correlation between the time you spend writing and the quantity of drivel produced.

Oh well.

For freelance writers, finding time is what writer’s block is to full-time writers. Hard to overcome.

But there are bits of time that could be claimed. A few minutes on the loo, if nothing else. Maybe take the bus to work rather than driving – that should give you a solid chunk of time. Or stop visiting those friends who always want to moan and groan and sap your energy. Bypass them and find a quiet spot in a coffee shop or the library or the third rock away from the screaming crowd at the beach. Whatever works for you.

Find the time. It’s worth it in the end.

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