Know Your Audience

So Tuesday afternoon I received an unexpected surprise—an article I’d written for the Gospel Coalition had been reposted.

At Relevant Magazine.

While surprising, it was also kind of cool as it put a piece that overall both my editor and I were pretty happy with in front of a different sort of audience. The response has also been… interesting. Some folks really resonated with the piece; others, not so much. Others still had some really helpful critiques that I would absolutely implement if I were writing the article again today.

This experience has reminded me of something really valuable when it comes to writing:

You have to know your audience. 

While I always try to write as broadly as possible, there are inevitably some assumptions that I make. When I write here or at TGC, for example, I tend to allow my theological convictions to come through a little more strongly than I do anywhere else. In my day job, my convictions are there, but because I’m speaking to a broader audience from a variety of Christian denominations, I tend to temper it appropriately. When I’ve revised and rewritten material for my church’s outreach team I’ve attempted to write with as much clarity as possible, remembering that the intended audience is non-Christian.

But what do you do when something you write shows up somewhere you never anticipated?

A couple things come to mind:

  1. Be clear. The worst thing that I can do is assume that the reader has the same knowledge I have about any subject (this is what the Heath brothers refer to as the curse of knowledge). I need to try to be sensible in my writing, giving enough explanation, maybe leaving a little bit of appropriate “white space”, but not overdoing it by overexplaining everything.
  2. Be thoughtful. Make sure I don’t reinforce stereotypes or promote caricatures of any position I may disagree with if an article addresses potentially controversial subject matter.
  3. Don’t worry. At the end of the day, I’ve got no control where any article I write for this blog or any other ends up. While I can do my best to be clear and thoughtful, I’m never going to please everyone, nor should I try.

Now, it’s your turn: What are some factors you think is important for writers to keep in mind as they write?

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books for adults and children, as well as multiple documentaries and Bible studies. His latest book, I'm a Christian—Now What?: A Guide to Your New Life with Christ is available now.

Reader interactions

5 Replies to “Know Your Audience”

  1. Holy Hannah!   Discus reformatted my comment abysmally.
    The links fails to take you where you want to go as well, although the test is on the left side, under GREAT THINKINg, the middle item of three is the tool.  Google takes you pronto.

    Or, we will try again with this link:

  2. Well over two years ago, I came across a “reading tool”, put out by David Van Amburg.
    His blog is Van Amburg Group Brilliant Marketing, and contains a series of writers, none specifically devoted to Christian publication.

    However, he published a tool that gives insight into YOUR writing, and whether it will reach an audience.  David was surprised to find his writings were above the national norm.  Typical newspapers target a reading level of Grade 6 to 8 (USA) reading level.  David wrote to an audience he presumed to be at the 12th Grade level, but the test showed he wrote over grade level 17.  His writings….were over the ability of his audience to understand!

    To do the test, a minimum 100 words of text are required.
    The first analysis gives straight forward data:Word Count (total), Average Words Per Sentence, and Sentence Count.  These are of minor interest to me.

    There are a variety of other testing scores, formed long before, but incoporated to further refine if you are writing at your audiences level.  The audience does not matter.  Your writing does!  The test reveal YOU, and your ability to communicate with a specific education level of folks.

    For instance, this blog post, Knowing Your Audience”, is “readable to the following folks:
    Text AnalysisWord Count: 392
    Average Words Per Sentence: 18.7
    Sentence Count: 21Average Grade LevelAverage Readability Level: 10.9Average of grade levels scores that follow.Approximation of number of years of education required* to read text.Specific ScoresFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease (Wikipedia): 56.7
    Aim for 60 to 80. The higher the score, the more readable the text.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~There are a myriad of other test types included and you can choose the one that suits your needs.However, Aaron is writing a tad above the typical USA reader in this post….Grade 10.9.The Specific Score, Flesch-Kinkaid Reading Ease is what I consider critical.  This is the one I aim for in comments, and often check me to see how I can do better later.”Aim for 60 to 80.  The higher the score, the more readable”  Aaron, you are 56.7. Oh YIKES!This is formatting, linguistics, and basic writing patterns involved, but regardless of the topic, a quick run of your post through this free test tool will tell you about how well you are coming across to a broad spectrum.By comparison, I ran (at random)  mrben comment as well.  The results?Text AnalysisWord Count: 130
    Average Words Per Sentence: 10.0
    Sentence Count: 13Average Grade LevelAverage Readability Level: 6.0Average of grade levels scores that follow.Approximation of number of years of education required* to read text.Specific ScoresFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease (Wikipedia): 78.2
    Aim for 60 to 80. The higher the score, the more readable the text.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~The commenter is reaching a Grade 6 reading level; however, in aiming for 60 to 80 and the higher the score, the more readable the text, he is at a whopper 78.2, meaning the WAY he writes is easily understood. This allows the commenter  (or any writer) to refine what they say, to be understood the best way).Stopping at the last sentence, my own comment reaches folks with at least Grade 7.4 reading skills, and the 60 to 80 aim (trying toward 80) comes in at 69.1.I have reviewed many texts, blogs, comments, and articles through this test with astounding results, especially in regards to comments (an area I love to review BEFORE the blog or article, to see what folks THINK they read, and how well the author got his point across.Google – Van Amburg Reading Tool – (it is free) and cut and paste a minimum 100 words of your writing, and look at the folks who are able to digest whatever you are saying.There are other “gauges’ of reading included, but I have not chosen to post them here too.But I have run the Declaration of Independence, some Mark Twain, a few New York Post op-eds that flunked miserably, and other writers, t see how their writing style influences the ability of an audience to understand what they say.  Happy writing to all.  Check this tool out. in any legal statements or bank changes from Capital One and they flunk. No one understands them.

  3. I think, above all, it’s important to be honest, to write what you really think, rather than what you think other people want to hear. Easier said than done sometimes, particularly if you think you’re going to cop a lot of flack!

  4. I agree with your comment that we should not caricature people. Being a highly critical..ahem…analytical person, I can tend to caricature those I disagree with. I find it helpful to have a clear picture of a friend or acquaintance (whom I disagree with) in mind when writing about a contentious issue. It helps me to be much more fair and charitable and consider things from their point of view, while alleviating some of my own blind spots.

  5. Firstly, congratulations on getting syndicated over at Relevant 🙂

    Secondly, a few thoughts off the top of my head about things to be aware (/wary?) of:

    1. Quote and link your sources accurately. Nothing worse than seeing a misquote, or, worse still, a quote out of context. 

    2. Don’t be afraid of comments – some people will love what you say, others will hate it, but at least they’re not indifferent. You want to provoke thought, both in mind and in spirit, and if you stir that up, people will always react. 

    3. Write what you know. I read too many tech blogs which are littered with factual inaccuracies because the writers don’t actually know their subject matter all that well.

    4. Admit when you get it wrong.

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