If you’re a writer, you have them—journals and Word documents filled with writing that most likely no one will ever read. It’s a joy in itself to write for the sole purpose of expressing yourself or to practice, and in many cases, you’re probably glad that particular work will never see the light of day.
However, sharing your thoughts, ideas, and creative turns of phrase with readers is the real goal of writing, and most of the time, you’re writing for an audience. Writing is the process of transferring what’s inside your mind to the minds of your readers, and it’s easy for much of it to get lost in translation.
Whether you’re having a hard time picturing who your readers are, or you struggle to write clearly for people who don’t have your knowledge, putting yourself in your readers’ shoes can help you make sure that your readers are connected, engaged, and picking up what you’re putting down.
When someone reads something that you’ve written, you probably want them to enjoy it, think about it, and remember it. Being able to imagine the perspective of your readers can help you make a connection with them, causing your writing to be more enjoyable and memorable for them to read.
Have you ever heard that the sweetest sound a person can hear is their own name? Well, the sweetest thing that someone can read is something written just for them. Make your readers feel like what they’re reading was written to them specifically, and not only will they get sucked into the writing, but it will stick in their minds afterward as well. Emotional connection makes for compelling writing that will move whoever reads it.
Use your writer’s imagination to pretend that you’re one of your own readers. Does your material seek to connect only on an intellectual level? Does it feel impersonal or cold? How do you approach your readers more warmly?
An easy way to make your readers feel like you’re talking directly to them in your writing is to write in the first- or second-person. Instead of writing in third-person, which can feel impersonal, use the more familiar first-person, like I am here.
Making them aware of the human behind the writing gives it a cozier, more personable feeling, and more like a conversation between the author and the reader. If the reader feels like you are a person just like them, they will like you more. And the more they like you, the more they will like your writing.
Techniques like sharing stories, asking questions, and engaging your readers on an emotional level are all excellent for establishing a connection with your readers, so employ them as often as you can.
Putting yourself in your readers’ shoes also helps you to write clearly. Show me someone who can’t comprehend what it’s like for a reader to not know what a writer knows, and I’ll show you an unclear writer.
When a writer wants to pass information on to their reader, whether it be the plot of a novel or complex scientific research, they need to think about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the information. It’s far too easy to assume that others use the same words that we use, know the facts that we see as common knowledge, and possess the same skills that we do. This leads to writing that is easily understood only by the person who wrote it.
Steven Pinker, the author of The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, calls this “The Curse of Knowledge,” and it doesn’t just happen in writing. People generally have a difficult time separating their own knowledge from that of others, particularly when it comes to estimating others’ abilities.
A 1996 study on egocentrism in adults had university students solving anagrams, for which some of the answers were revealed beforehand, and rating their difficulty. The subjects rated the ones that were easier for them (because they had seen the answers) as being easier puzzles for everybody.
Not being able to see past our own knowledge is why written instructions and manuals can be so hard to follow—the person writing it probably assumed that any small steps or clarifications they left out would be perfectly obvious to the user.
This type of blindness towards your own work is what needs to be avoided if you want your writing to resonate with your readers. If they need to work to be able to understand or follow it, they’ll move on.
According to Pinker, the best way to lift the curse of knowledge is “to be aware of the specific pitfalls that it sets in your path” (63). This can mean avoiding or explaining jargon that could alienate your readers. Be a considerate writer—whenever you can, choose words that most people will be familiar with.
You’re not dumbing it down; you’re tailoring your work to better achieve the goal of writing it in the first place—to share whatever brilliant ideas, knowledge, or stories you have with the outside world.
One surefire way to make sure you’re reaching your target audience is to know your audience. Easier said than done, but putting yourself in your readers’ shoes will get you there.
Knowing what your audience wants to read is crucial to gaining and maintaining a readership. If they aren’t finding what they want or need in your material, they’ll look for it elsewhere.
To make sure that you’re hitting your mark, there are a few things that you need to know.
First of all, who are your readers? Twenty-something college grads? Established professionals? Teenagers? Knowing the demographic that you’re aiming for will help you tailor your words toward them.
You also need to know why they are reading your stuff. What are they looking for in their reading material, and what made them click on your article or reach for your book?
Once you know who they are and what they’re after, you’re much better equipped to supply it. Knowing your audience also helps you establish that all-important connection by allowing you to write directly to them.
It’s one thing to know you should be walking in your readers’ shoes, and another thing to actually being able to do it. If you’re struggling to think of a way to find out what’s going on in the minds of your readers, well, all you have to do is ask.
Show your drafts to your family, significant other, roommate—whomever—early in the writing process, and listen to what they think.
Do they understand what you’re trying to say, or are there any steps or explanations missing? If it’s a novel or short story, can they follow the plot? What do they think of your jokes and figures of speech? And most importantly, do they like it?
Make sure that whomever you’re asking is comfortable enough offering constructive criticism that they give you honest feedback—false encouragement and pats on the back will do you no favors in this situation. It’s also best if they fall into your target audience demographic, but any outside feedback is better than none at all.
Listening to a reader will give you a glimpse of what your work looks like through their eyes, with plenty of opportunity to make any changes that might increase its clarity, give it more emotional resonance, or simply make it more enjoyable to read.
Whether you’re writing a novel, blog posts, or technical documents, the goal is to communicate with your readers. Getting your message across and having it land well depends on figuring out how your readers will receive your writing, and that means looking at it through their eyes.
The dream destination of every writer is being able to write clear, engaging, persuasive material, and sometimes you need to slip on your readers’ shoes in order to reach it.
As someone whose childhood was spent having books pried away from her at the dinner table, a future working with words was almost inevitable. Giselle has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Calgary, and has worked as a writer/copyeditor for a newspaper, freelance proofreader/editor/writer, and piano teacher. She splits her time between Mexico City and Calgary, Alberta and always has her eye out for adventure, whether that be backpacking in the Rocky Mountains or picking up a new instrument. Giselle is a content editor for Craft Your Content.