‘Who Am I Writing For?’

It’s the magic question every writer needs to ask themselves

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

All writing is storytelling. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing marketing copy or a hot take or a novel about cyborgs in love. You’re telling a story to someone. A living, breathing person. I’ve written for large and small audiences. But I always try to imagine a human being when I, John DeVore, sit down to scribble.

A story should flow naturally from storyteller to reader. It should be specific because “glass slipper” sounds better than “special shoe.” A story should feel like a hug, and if you think that’s corny, then let’s agree to agree that you’re wrong.

My best work happens when I write for a single person instead of a mass of people. Like any writer, I want to be popular. I want to be read by as many people as possible. But the only way to do that is to connect with one person. Before I write anything — whether it’s a social media post for a brand or a first-person essay or a movie review — I ask myself, “Who am I writing for?”

Who am I telling a story to?

It’s a question I encourage every writer to ask themselves, especially those in digital media where the pressure to drive traffic and to be everything to everyone is intense. There is no virality formula. If there were, then more stories would blow up.

I don’t know what makes a hit; no one does. But I do know one thing: The conditions for success start with a simple question.

Who am I writing for?

I’ve worked for companies that provided me demographic data on their readers. I’ve edited websites whose editor read their comments and decided their audience were lunatics, so they wrote for lunatics. I was recently on contract at a local news website in Texas and the answer to their problems was built into their mission: When they wrote for Texans, their work was shared when it was written for Texans. I told them to write for their friends and loved ones and neighbors, to tell them interesting, important, inspiring stories about their beloved state.

So who do I write for? Generally, it depends on whether I’m writing for a client or not, but generally, I write for one very specific person. Allow me to introduce him. His name is Don JeVore. Don is [mumbles]-six years old. He loves horror movies and ice cream cake, specifically Carvel’s Fudgie the Whale. Don takes long hot baths where he carefully scrolls through TikTok on his phone while he soaks.

Whenever I write, I’m writing for Don. He likes to read about movies and TV and feelings and I like to write about each of those things. Don’s an average enough person. He thinks I’m funny, which is pretty great. Don went on a walk this weekend and shrieked when he saw a deer and he has a small dog he named after famed 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer. He is engaged to a scary-brilliant woman who adores cole slaw and reality competition shows and who surprised him with a wedding proposal before the plague descended. His midlife crisis is listening to Taylor Swift’s Folklore on a loop.

Don is biracial but he checked “white” recently during vaccine prescreening. His mother lives in Texas and has never identified as Hispanic — she is Mexican American, muchas gracias. His favorite Christopher Nolan movie is either Inception or Interstellar. His favorite animated movie is Coco. (Obvs.) He loves westerns. He’s a recovering alcoholic who doesn’t care if you drink or not, but if you’re struggling, he’s more than happy to talk to you about it.

I think there are some writers who don’t think their job is creative, which isn’t true. I don’t care if you’re writing a technical manual or a sales letter, asking yourself “Who am I writing for?” is a question that requires creativity to answer, even if the answer is as simple as “an IT professional” or “a new client.” You know, Don can work in IT, and, also, did you know Don is interested in investing? Don is short for Donna, or Donthulhu. There are all kinds of Don.

Who is your Don? If you’re having trouble visualizing him or her or them then do what I do when I’m stuck: I close my eyes and gently press my left and right hand’s index fingers against my temple as if I were a powerful telepath. And then I whisper-chant to myself “Who am I writing for?” I also do this when I can’t decide what to order for dinner.

I write to entertain Don. My Don. I write to make him feel things and to educate him and to surprise him. And more importantly, I write to him because I have an authentic connection to Don. In a way, all my readers are Don, no matter their identity. I care about them. I welcome them. Our relationship is intimate and personal, just like good writing should be.

More of your writing questions, answered

Are you stuck on a draft, feeling uninspired, or would you just like some more advice? Read these stories:

  • Want to identify your ideal reader? Here’s some help.
  • Having trouble overcoming writer’s block? Check this out.
  • Having trouble with properly promoting yourself? Take a look at this.

Currently: Humungus. Formerly: NY Post, CONAN, Sirius XM. 2X James Beard award-winning essayist. I write about culture, politics, feelings.

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