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Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Identifying Your Reader in Self-Help Writing

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not identifying your reader in self-help writing.

Everyone makes mistakes—even writers—but that's OK 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.

(Grammar rules for writers.)

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 not identifying your reader in self-help writing.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Identifying Your Reader in Self-Help Writing

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Identifying Your Reader in Self-Help Writing

As I mentioned in my last post for this series, I’ve worked with a lot of self-help authors. As we would sit down to get started writing their books, I noticed that the majority of my authors had resistance toward specifying who exactly their message was geared toward.

“I have things to say that can help everyone!” they’d assert.

You may be feeling similarly; you probably wouldn’t be writing a how-to book if you didn’t want to help people. I get it! However, if you make your writing too broad, your message will lose power rather than gain it.

Take this very article, for instance. Is it important that all writers decide who they’re writing for? Of course! If you don’t know whether you’re writing for children, teens, or adults, you might have trouble discerning your tone, your characters, or even your plot.

But I’m not writing this article for all writers; I’m writing it for the self-help author who is sitting at their desk, knowing that their work could help someone who really needs it but are worried they aren’t casting their net wide enough.

While fiction authors might find this advice helpful, my advice will be more effective because I know exactly who I’m talking to, what they need to hear from me, and why.

Another example: Say that you’re a pain management specialist who has a lot of experience with cancer patients. You might sit down to write with the idea of writing for cancer patients, but then you get nervous. Aren’t there more patients who could use your help? What about people who have been severely injured in car accidents, or those who have progressive disorders? You decide that you should probably open up your work to include all of these.

However, your cancer patients—respectfully—don’t care about the pain of a car accident injury than the way they care about their own pain. They want to know how to manage their pain, not anyone else’s. When they don’t find the information they need to handle their specific problems, they might feel like you’re overlooking them or don’t understand what they need. They might stop reading or, more likely, never pick up the book at all.

As I like to lovingly say, the self-help reader is selfish. They have a problem. They want to solve that problem. If you’re not going to give them what they need to solve it, they’re not going to engage with your work.

(Identifying Your Book's Target Audience)

Mistake Fix: The One-Sentence Pitch

The one-sentence pitch is the easiest way to identify who your reader is. It looks like this:

I help X people who struggle with Y accomplish/feel/become Z.

Seems simple, right? But we need to get really specific here. It’s easy to say, “I help trauma survivors who struggle with PTSD feel better,” but it’s a little harder to say, “I help military and ex-military personnel who struggle with combat-related PTSD feel more confident and at peace.”

To get our three components of the one-sentence pitch, we must ask ourselves three questions:

1. What’s your reader’s problem?

This can be a little broader in the beginning. If you want to write down something like “pain management” or “trauma,” that’s a great start. But then you should turn your mind’s eye to your muse. What’s this person’s specific issue? For the pain management specialist, what’s specifically causing your patient’s pain? For the mental health professional, what is most concerning to your muse about their mental health?

These are heavier topics, but it’s the same for those writers looking to assist people who need help organizing their office, finish writing their first book, or ask their boss for a raise.

Another way to come at this is to ask yourself how you became familiar with the problem you’re helping to solve. Was it your job? Did you help friends or family get through this? Did you have the problem for yourself, and you were able to navigate your way through to the other side?

2. Who struggles with this?

Once you know the problem, you’ll be able to pinpoint your muse. One way you might find specificity is by asking yourself who you were thinking of when you first decided you wanted to write a book. Was might even be a specific person, like a coworker, client, or even yourself? It’s totally OK to be writing a book that you wish you’d had!

Another way to get even more specific is to ask the problem why? If the problem is “I need to be more budget-conscious,” why is that? Have they just gone through a job loss? A divorce? “I need to be more budget-conscious to accommodate end-of-life care for my mother” is a much more specific audience to who you can tailor your advice.

Don’t be afraid to get really specific once you have that person in mind. What’s their age? Their lifestyle? What’s important to them or not? For example, if your muse’s problem is “I need to be more budget-conscious after my divorce” and they’re a single mother, they’re probably not going to have the time or inclination to sit down and read a 400-page manifesto on every single way to save money. Instead, they want something fast and simple, something they can drop in their purse and read in small snatches of free time between helping with her kid’s homework and keeping the house running and work.

3. What’s your reader’s ideal outcome?

It might seem like the ideal outcome is to become a millionaire if your problem is that you have trouble saving money, but our desires are usually more realistic than that. For the “I have problems saving money” reader, their ideal outcome might be “I have paid down my debts and now have the extra finances to begin saving.”

The tricky part of the ideal outcome is that your ideal reader might think they want something, but you know that they actually need something else. For example, the muse might be a mother of a teenager and the problem might be that the teenager is misbehaving in school. The reader might think that they need to get their teenager to behave, but you know they need to establish better boundaries and communication with their teen. It’s important to identify that difference here because when you start writing, you’re going to need to meet the reader where they are.

Of course, everyone’s ideal outcomes are different, but you’re only focusing on that muse. What is the outcome they don’t know that they need? Is it to pay down debt, better organize their schedule, or seek better boundaries with their families? What does a day in the life of that ideal outcome look like? How will it make that muse feel?

You should know enough now to be able to tackle that one-sentence pitch. So, tell me: What does your one-sentence pitch say? 

How to Write an Article

In online lectures, supplemental readings, and written assignments and exercises, we’ll talk about ­how to source, prioritize and develop topic ideas; compose and refine pitches to multiple outlets; stay tightly organized about submissions, follow-ups, and correspondence; and execute assignments brilliantly–as well as why writers who query well, deliver on time, and prove easy to work with are gold to editors everywhere. 

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