Everyone makes mistakes—even writers—but that's okay because each mistake is a great learning opportunity. The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them early in the process. Note: The mistakes in this series aren't focused on grammar rules, though we offer help in that area as well.
Rather, we're looking at bigger picture mistakes and mishaps, including the error of using too much exposition, neglecting research, or researching too much. This week's writing mistake writers make is trying to write for everyone.
Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Trying to Write for Everyone
There are times when common sense would direct us to take one action when another action is actually better. Such is the case when thinking about who your target audience is. Common sense would probably lead a writer to think that the best target audience is the largest audience, so write for everyone. However, writing for everyone is often the same as writing for nobody.
If you're writing nonfiction, think of it this way: It doesn't make sense to include a bunch of new recipes in a book about the history of automobiles. A biography on a former president probably isn't the place for step-by-step, how-to instructions. And if it does include instructions, then it's probably not going to provide the typical treatment expected in a presidential biography. If it tried to do both, it would come out a muddled mess.
If you're writing fiction, think of it this way: A novel can't be written for people who want a light-hearted romance and an edge-of-your-seat horror. While romance and horror could conceivably be combined, light-hearted and edge-of-your-seat are polar opposites. Even if it starts one way and ends the other, it's impossible to maintain both throughout.
And that's okay—writing for a specific audience is okay. In fact, the better you can define your audience the better your chances of finding success.
Mistake Fix: Define Your Target Audience
This can seem like a chicken-egg scenario for some writers. Which came first: the target audience or the book idea? Luckily, it's okay if both evolve together. In fact, many successful writers take both routes.
For the book idea (whether fiction or nonfiction), it's okay if the author thinks, "Hey, this would be a great idea for a book!" In this scenario, the author is probably right that they're on to a great idea, but they can then define their idea and target audience by taking the following steps:
- Identify where the book would be shelved in a bookstore or library. If you're writing a novel, is it a romance? Horror? Mystery? If nonfiction, where would it go? Walk around a bookstore and think: Where would this be shelved? And yes, you have to pick a section and can't just say it would go in the front of the store.
- Identify the age of your readers. Are you writing for children? Young adults? Parents? Grandparents? Retirees?
- List out anything of special interest to your audience. If you're writing a science fiction novel, this means identifying what kind of science fiction they like: near future? Space travel? Time travel? If you're writing nonfiction, try to peg down possible hobbies, incomes, etc.
And if you don't have a great book idea or have several book ideas, it's okay to identify your audience before assembling the book idea. For instance, I authored a book of poetry prompts titled Smash Poetry Journal after identifying a need for a "fun prompt book specifically for poets." My target wasn't to write a serious book for academics; it was for people who would not only accept but celebrate the use of "poeming" as a verb. That's a specific audience, and that audience guided the process of writing and marketing the book.
So keep that in mind when you're looking to publish and sell your writing. It's okay if you started writing without any comprehension of who your audience would be. But now that it's time to get published, figure out who your readers are. It will make it that much easier to get your book in their hands.
You're an author on a tight budget. Or, maybe you've got some money, but you're tired of wasting it on marketing that didn't work. You've poured everything into writing your book hoping to move thousands of readers with your words. You've dreamed, hoped, maybe even prayed, that your book sales would take off. But, that reality has yet to come true. It doesn't seem fair for your dream to die just because you don't have thousands of dollars to spend on marketing. Is selling a lot of books only reserved for the elite authors with big budgets? No.