How to Find Your Ideal Reader (and why you should get to know them ASAP)
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When I first began writing, I didn't have a clue who my future readers would be.
I wrote for myself, as I believe many writers do when they first begin. But I was eighteen at the time, wafting through the grey space between teenage- and adult-hood, and every time I matured as a person, my writing matured too. As a result, my stories were ever-changing, and I struggled to maintain a hold on the narratives I was trying to tell.
This is why, when I first came across the concept of an ideal reader, my interest immediately piqued. With it, however, came a million questions. What in the world is an ideal reader? Can you be your own? How can having a clear picture of your future readers help shape your stories for the better? Writer, we're breaking it all down in today's article, so let's get started!
What is an ideal reader?
Let's begin with a definition, shall we? An ideal reader is the fictional person to which a book would most appeal. Most frequently, they represent a specific age group and interest or experiences, but in some cases, an ideal reader might also represent a certain ethnicity, religious background, sexuality, or other identifying marker.
But why is defining your story's own ideal reader so important, you ask? I firmly believe that the best way to tell a good story is to write with purpose. To craft characters that are well-rounded, to utilize structure as the foundation for good pacing, to consciously weave theme into even the least literary of novels, and so on.
By knowing exactly who your ideal reader is for each individual story you write, you can work to craft every element of your story to appeal to that reader. Later, you can use this same principle to market your published story to the readers who are most likely to love and champion your book to success.
See how powerful writing with an ideal reader in mind can be? The extra good news is that defining your story's ideal reader doesn't have to be a scary process. In fact, it's fairly easy in most cases — and it's never too late in the writing process to give a little consideration to the reader who would most enjoy your work.
Discovering your ideal reader...
Working to write a story that appeals to as many readers as possible is a common mistake. Readers are diverse, and thus no story will appeal to every reader. Unfortunately, writers that fail to realize this often produce books featuring stale, insubstantial storytelling that leaves nearly all who read it wanting more.
Instead of making this fatal mistake, take the time to define your ideal reader using the keys and questions below:
Key #1: Age.
Perhaps the most obvious key to understanding your ideal reader is defining their age, as most books are categorized and promoted by age market (e.g. children's, middle grade, young adult, adult, etc).
Key #2: Secondary Demographics.
Beyond age, you may find it helpful to consider whether you're writing a story meant specifically to appeal to a certain demographic over others. For example, your book may be best enjoyed by Muslim Americans, gay teens, single mothers, children of divorced parents, disabled readers, and so on.
Key #3: Interests.
Readers of your stories will likely share certain obvious interests. For example, if you're writing medieval fantasy fiction, most readers who pick up your books will have some interest in secondary-world stories, dragons, epic battle scenes, and maybe elves with pointy ears.
Don't be afraid to delve deeper, however, to discover what truly makes your ideal reader unique. Do they enjoy Hero's Journey stories that feature female leads? Do they wish someone would explore medieval African history in fantasy? Or are they ready for someone to reinvent the dragon-and-his-lair narrative?
You can't please everyone with your stories, writer. However, there is a reader for every book. Appealing directly to that reader by understanding exactly what most piques their interest is a great way to make your story someone's favorite read.
Key #4: The Why.
Perhaps most importantly, you'll want to ask yourself why it is your ideal reader reads.
Some readers enjoy novels that are pure entertainment — all romance, adventure, or thrill. But other readers enjoy novels that engage them emotionally or intellectually, that comment on society and make them think about the world and their place in it.
Others yet, myself included, enjoy stories that manage to do a little of all of the above. Knowing why your ideal reader reads, regardless of their specific why, can help you craft and market a story that best appeals to their tastes.
How defining your ideal reader improves your work...
Already, we've touched briefly on the awesome power that knowing your ideal reader can provide. But now, let's take a quick moment to explore this area more deeply. Here's a quick rundown of the five primary ways that knowing your ideal reader can provide added purpose and clarity to your work:
Though it's not necessary to define your ideal reader during the pre-writing process, choosing to do so can help you craft characters, plot lines, themes, and other storytelling elements that appeal directly to your specific audience before you even write a word.
If you're a fan of pre-writing before you draft, don't miss the power of plotting and planning with your ideal reader in mind.
Stories often evolve during the drafting and revising process as storylines are strengthened, plot holes are filled, and characters, themes, and story-worlds are developed more deeply.
These tasks, however, can often feel overwhelming. With so many directions your story can take, how do you keep its narrative focused? Working with your ideal reader in mind can cut through much of this option overwhelm, helping you write and revise with clarity and direction.
Planning to query agents as you pursue the traditional publishing route? In most cases, agents look for unique stories that appeal to specific audiences, as those stories are much more marketable than those that retell the same old plot line without any new twists.
There are some exceptions to this rule, mind you. Some publishers look specifically for mass-market stories that utilize the same genre tropes again and again. Consider, for example, Harlequin romances.
In either case, however, knowing your book's specific ideal reader will make the process of finding and pitching the best agents to represent your book all the easier.
Whether you're publishing traditionally or going the self-pub route, building an online author platform can help you find new readers and keep current readers engaged and up-to-date with your work.
Of course, the key to building and maintaining a successful platform is first knowing which readers your stories appeal to. After all, connecting with twenty real-life ideal readers will always help you find success faster than gaining the attention of two hundred readers who aren't all that interested in your book.
With your author platform established and your book published or upcoming, you'll likely turn your eyes toward marketing. Ah, yes... The great nebulous abyss that is marketing. Love it or hate it, promoting a book to success is tough work.
Knowing your ideal reader and their preferences, however, is key to cutting through all that option overwhelm and trying out the marketing techniques that are most likely to catch the eye of your real-life ideal readers.
Can you be your own ideal reader?
When it comes to the ideal-reader discussion, this is by far the question I am most frequently asked. The answer, however, isn't exactly simple. Can you be your own ideal reader? Yes, absolutely. But should you be?
First and foremost, I want to acknowledge that you should always write for yourself. Writing to appeal to a particular market that you don't personally enjoy is a surefire way to create a book that lacks any shred of passion, and readers will pick up on that. However, just because you're writing what you enjoy doesn't mean you're your own ideal reader.
For example, writers of children's and young adult fiction aren't often their own ideal readers. They are adults who just so happen to love writing stories for children and teenagers. Their ideal reader might specifically be a younger version of themselves, but it isn't the person they are today.
Some writers may also find themselves writing stories for audiences that don't directly represent themselves. For example, Nicholas Sparks is a male romance writer who creates stories that appeal to a largely female audience, meaning he doesn't likely consider himself his own ideal reader.
At the end of the day, however, it doesn't matter whether you're technically your own ideal reader. What matters is that you're writing stories you love for readers who will adore them. So take the time to define your ideal reader, yourself or otherwise, then go rock your writing. You may just find yourself working with clarity and focus like never before!