Many people will read what you write. We call these people your audience. When you write, your document or manuscript is the tool you use to communicate with them, so understanding them helps you communicate in an appropriate manner. However, unlike some other forms of communication, you actually have two audiences, which we call “primary” and “secondary” audiences. We’ll look at each in turn.
Your primary audience is the person or group of people who will directly receive, or buy, what you write. For example, if you write a book, your primary audience is the person who buys the book. If you are writing a financial report, the primary audience is the person to whom you deliver the report. If you are writing text for your website, the primary audience is the website visitor you are most trying to attract.
When you write, you are trying to communicate information, ideas, impressions, emotions, etc. Whether you are writing fiction, nonfiction, technical documents, or poetry, you have to determine what to include in your document and how to deliver that information.
Once you have figured out who your primary audience is, think about what that person wants or needs. This is one of the most important issues to consider when you are writing and editing. Think critically about that audience and ask a number of important questions, including
a. Why will this person read my document?
b. What problem will this document solve?
c. What does this person want from my document?
d. When and where will this person read?
e. What knowledge does this person already have about the topic?
f. What will this person do with the information in my document?
Answers to these questions (and others you may think of) will help you make decisions about such issues as topics in general, specific content, length, complexity, format, use of headers and footers, use of headings and lists, and word choice. As you can see, knowledge of your primary audience affects not only what you write about but also how.
These are marketing-type questions that will help guide the development of your product: your document. You may have a specific goal to accomplish with your document. However, only through aligning your document with your readers’ needs will you accomplish that goal.
Now that you have created a profile of your primary audience, let’s consider your secondary audience. Your secondary audience is the person or group of people who receive the document from the primary audience. In many cases, though, the document itself is not transferred to the secondary audience—only the information from or about the document is passed on.
For example, if you write a financial analysis of a new program, your primary audience may be your supervisor or contracting agent. If that person takes specific information from the report and uses it to create his or her own report, or if that person passes on the document to another person, then the document or information moves from the primary to the secondary audience.
For another example, if you write a fiction book, the person who buys the book is the primary audience. However, if that person passes the book on to another person, if the original buyer talks about the book to someone else, or if the book is read with a child or another person, then the child or other person is the secondary audience.
Why is this important? Nearly every document or manuscript will have a secondary audience. The needs of that person may be different than the needs of the primary audience. Create a profile of this person, as well, using the same questions listed above. To ensure the effectiveness of your writing (or the widest distribution of the content), identify the secondary audience and consider that person’s needs.
You will want to address both the primary and secondary audiences’ needs. Once you have done so, you will have the information necessary as a writer to create the document or manuscript that others will accept, understand, and appreciate. And this means you will be able to accomplish your goals.
(The content of this article was adapted from 300 Days of Better Writing.)
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