Knowing your Audience
Theoretically, billions of people can access what you write, so how can you cater it to them to make it something they want to read and will keep coming back for more?
It’s not as hard as it sounds. Even though you could reach the whole world, you just want to aim your writing at a much more select audience. You can think about who you might be targeting by other content on your website and its themes. If you’re writing for a more commercial purpose, for example to sell or advertise a service or product, think about the kind of people you expect to buy from you and why they might be buying. Do they want to make shopping easier? Do they want the latest gadgets? Are you looking to supply them with something from their lives that might be missing (or at least convince them of that)?
You can take this further by imagining a person who would be the typical reader you’d want to target. How old are they? Where do they live? What kind of house do they live in? Which TV programmes do they watch? What do they do at the weekend? Of course, there is some element of danger to adopting this approach as this person is not ‘real’, and may not be even a completely accurate representation of your audience. After all, the Internet attracts a hell of a lot of different people. Therefore, you need to be careful you don’t start stereotyping, saying things you don’t mean in an effort to include people or attempt to identify with them in that way, or alienating them completely.
In terms of writing in places of deeper interaction such as forums and article websites, knowing your audience is a whole lot easier. Always browse around existing content of such sites before you begin writing, so you can think about what style to use (be careful of accidental plagiarism though, if you’re writing articles). Often you can also glean useful information about the other people on the website through their own writing and more factual profile information. If you’re writing blog entries, think about who your commenters are and what their websites are like.
Style and Tone
Another thing to take into account is the concept of register. Even if you’re not familiar with the term, it’s already something you probably already do naturally as it refers to the manner in which you choose to address people. For example, you might say to a friend ‘I felt crap today’, but to your doctor ‘I’m not feeling too goodâ’. The same is true in writing, especially for the Internet, and it’s vital to know how formal or informal to be, and how to select words that suit your audience’s interest and reading ability. You want to capture their attention for as long as possible, get them to read more pages, or bookmark your site, or give you money for something. Whatever your purpose is, you need to think about the style of language you need to use to achieve it.
You’ll begin to automatically adopt the different writing styles you need for different websites – for example your tone and intended audience for a blog entry will usually be different from that of a money-earning review article. Once you’re confident and comfortable that you know your audience and can use the appropriate style, it is much easier to write – all you need is a topic.
If you have been given a topic to write about, think about its definitions and associations, and from that try to build up some information about your intended audience. For example, you’re asked to write some promotional text advertising a casino. Most likely you will want to write for people who enjoy games, are over eighteen, and enjoy the thrill of winning or losing. Look a bit further and you can stereotype risk takers, recklessness, people eager for more money through something they enjoy. If it’s an offline casino, they may be predominantly classy (or aspire to be).
Problems can occur when you mix incompatible elements. For example, you’ve been asked by a company to write the casino piece – but it’s to be published on your own blog. This is a more delicate situation as unless you’re incredibly flexible topic-wise or work in a casino, your blog probably has nothing to do with gambling, and your audience may not be thrilled either. Furthermore, your actual knowledge of such things might be limited, and if you’re not convinced you know what you’re talking about, your audience won’t be fooled either. The best you can do in such situations is use your usual style of writing for this format. If it’s confidently you, and an approach the audience is familiar with, you have more chance of getting away with it. Reading around the subject and absorbing as much information as you can can’t hurt. Using clichés is not always a good idea unless it’s a new twist or a parody, but in this instance it works quite well as your audience will be happy to cling to this sense of familiarity.
If you haven’t been given a topic to write about, think about the target audience you’ve built up in your mind. Think about some of the general things you might want to say. You also need to decide whether you’re the kind of person that prefers spontaneous typing as thoughts enter your head, or whether you like to set down a clear plan and structure of where you’re going before you start. Headings can usually help with this, or at least remind you of what you’re going to say. If you’re working to a specification, they can also help to ensure they cover all areas of what you need to say.
Always experiment. You may be surprised at what works (or doesn’t!).
Ask for feedback where possible. Whether this is from your audience, your commissioner or your friend, find out what they think is good and how you can improve.
Keep it real. Unless it’s intentionally fiction, don’t make false claims, don’t exaggerate to great lengths and don’t be condescending. Talk to your audience at the same level you think at.
Consider culture. Your writing is open to every kind of culture there is, so be respectful. Also, don’t assume shared knowledge, even across similar societies. Australian, American and British citizens all have completely different experiences and surroundings despite shared language, so don’t always assume they will know the meaning of a particular word or a cultural reference.
Practice. Your writing will develop as you get older and learn more about language and your audience. Keep old things you’ve written to look back on and see how you’re improving. You could also try re-writing pieces to see how your perceptions and style have changed over the course of a few years.