“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”
One of the most common problems new writers struggle with when they start to write is finding their own voice. When you have a great idea for an article and a good grasp of the subject matter, not knowing what voice, tone, and level of detail to use can still paralyse you, and make writing a tormenting chore, rather than an enjoyable outlet. In this post, I’ll share a mental “hack” that I’ve been using to help me overcome this mental block, and to be more proactive when it comes to writing.
Write for just one person I learned a valuable lesson a couple of years ago when my business decided to focus on selling our services to a narrower, more specific audience. This was a risk for us because we would be alienating a lot of potential clients who didn’t fit within the niche we aimed to carve for ourselves. As a young start-up business, having fewer clients was not a viable option for us. However, the risk seemed to pay off well, and we found ourselves inundated with more prospective clients than ever after just a few weeks. The lesson I learned from that experience is this: “When you try to speak to everyone at once, you’ll be heard by no one. The more specifically you direct your message, the more likely you are to be heard.”
Of course, good marketers have known this for years, but the same is true for writing too.
Now when I write, I take this same concept one step further and I single out just one real-life person in my mind to write for.
This might seem counter-intuitive. When writing, the natural tendency is to try to maximise the size of your potential audience by painting broad, general strokes, but this tendency is the very thing that makes writing seem overwhelming in the first place. Problems always seem easier when you narrow down the scope.
For me, choosing just one person moves the process of writing away from trying to create a vaguely defined artefact for an imaginary audience, to the natural and purposeful act of writing a note to a friend. Any questions of voice, tone, style, and depth all naturally answer themselves, in the same way as they do when you have a conversation with someone you know. The same is true of context, so you’ll find it less frustrating trying to guess how much background information your reader already has, and how much you should provide.
It’s too early for me to tell, but I suspect that another side-effect of this approach will be that your reading audience defines themselves more clearly and more naturally than if you try and engineer the process. Chances are, the person you write for shares a lot of similarities with others. So, if your writing appeals to them, it’s probably going to appeal to other people with similar values, interests, backgrounds, etc.
Deciding who the one person is I don’t have any rules for who my intended audience should be. Sometimes I write blog posts to answer specific questions that someone I know has asked me (e.g. How to meditate). Other times, I take it as an imaginary opportunity to explain a concept to someone who I think would benefit from hearing it. I find that friends are easier to write for than strangers.
How to check your work out Once I have a draft complete, I’ll usually do each of the following sanity checks before I publish it.
Check the readability using the Flesch~Kinkcaid scale The most important goal of writing is to be understood clearly by your reader. If your reader can’t understand what you’ve written, you’ve failed at communicating. People fail at communicating far more often than they should.
The Flesch-Kincaid scale is a useful mathematical formula that calculates how readable your writing is likely to be. It uses the average syllable count, word length, and sentence length, to provide a readability score between 0 and 100. The lower, the better, but I generally aim to keep my score under 70 for everything that I write now.
Readability Score is a great free online tool for finding your Flesch-Kincaid score.
Read your writing out loud This is a must. Your writing should flow well when you read it out aloud. The tone should be natural and comfortable, and should feel similar to how it would if you were actually holding a conversation with the person you have in mind.
Invite that person to read it The last benefit of writing for just one person is that you can ask them to read it once you’ve done. If they enjoyed it, then you can consider that a win. If they had questions or found something difficult to understand, the chances are others will too. Use this as an opportunity to give your writing a final edit.
If you’re a writer, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with this technique.