Why does anyone care what you write?
How to not lose an audience
The single most heinous crime you can commit as an author—and the one most likely to lose you readership—is to make the whole story about you, and you alone, and to forget your readers.
But wait, you say. What if I’m writing a memoir, or a book that builds on my own personal experience? Surely that’s about me!
Not so. Your memoir or the details of your experience are interesting to your readers because of how it relates to their lives and experiences. Your readers care about what your book offers to them. You are purely incidental. Unless you are Michelle Obama, no one cares.
Be the reader
Think about yourself. What’s the first question you ask yourself when you think about whether you want to read a book?
Is this interesting?
When you read a book, you answer the question in the affirmative. If you skip it, the answer is no. Now ask yourself:
Why is it interesting?
What makes this book interesting?
This is the key to your audience.
Write down the titles of the last three books you read. Below the title, write what made that book interesting to you. Maybe you love books that make the technical accessible; you love books that inspire; you love books with actionable information; you love books with great characters; you love books that create alternate worlds you can lose yourself in.
Books are about the reader first. This is usually obvious to all of us whenever we’re reading a book…and we often forget it when we write one.
Don’t forget your audience
You the writer love what you are writing about. Whether your book is about sea urchins or is a fantasy novel, you’re mostly thinking about yourself. It’s easy, while you are writing, to get caught up in the story and forget those other people, your readers.
I see this happen a lot in early in early drafts. This is normal and perfectly fine—as long as we fix it before going to press. The most common ways writers forget their audiences are:
Nonfiction: while telling an anecdote or giving an example to illustrate a point, the writer keeps adding awesome details, and five or maybe ten pages later finally runs out of ways to express how cool s/he found all of this information.
Fiction: in writing a scene, the writer discovers that a secondary character’s backstory needs fifteen pages of manuscript space, or gets lost in a love poem describing the setting, where we have no paragraph breaks for several pages.
This is where the editor comes in and asks you why it’s all there. This is code for, “Why would the reader find this interesting/need to know this information, at this particular point in time, or in this way?”
After you finish an early draft, turn around to look at your audience. Bring the focus back to the reader. What are they going to do with this information? How would they relate to it? What questions would they have?
In nonfiction, you can directly ask your audience questions. That’s one way of turning to look at them. In fiction, generally we need to be more subtle. Does what we wrote make sense only in our heads? We may need beta readers to give us feedback.
The good news is, you can use your “whys” as a reader to help you build a wonderful book as a writer. Go back to the lists I had you make on the last three books you read. If you were to put together a list of whys for the readers of your book, what would that look like? What do you want your readers to say?
The bottom line
No matter how autobiographical your story is, your book is never about you in the way you think. If it was, you could keep a diary and be done with it. Why are you publishing?
This is a very, very important point from an editorial perspective. Readers, like all other humans, appreciate when we pay attention to them. If the story was clearly written for you the author and it’s an accident that other readers stumble into your monologue, how long do you think they’ll stick around? Treat them with respect. Build your book for them, as well as for yourself.