Wednesday, August 19, 2009


By Judith Ross for Talking Writing

This week I am writing new copy for my organization’s Web site. In her book, Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works, Janice (Ginny) Redish suggests developing a persona for your users that, among other things, identifies their values, emotions, expertise, demographics, and the kind of language they use. Her advice has allowed me to feel as though I am writing one side of a conversation that will hopefully encourage users to ‘talk back’ by downloading a report or giving us a call. In this case, as when writing for almost any magazine or newsletter, the audience’s needs come first.

The role of audience is completely different, however, if we are trying to break boundaries and do something new. In that situation, having a ‘persona’ looking over your shoulder, forcing you to weigh every word, note, or brush stroke is more stifling than helpful.

My son Ben, a trumpet player, performs in a variety of settings. Last month I heard him play with one of his experimental projects, performing music that he and others in the band composed.

While Ben strives to give his listeners the best possible experience with this kind of music, he can’t let concerns about their likes and dislikes intrude on his creative process. He told me that if he starts to worry about the audience when he is improvising, the music can suffer.

“Worrying about what ‘others’ might think is only going to interfere,” he wrote in an email. “This attitude is not self indulgent because if you are doing it right, the art that you create will touch on universal truths that will resonate with others because of how well they resonate with you. Attempting to ‘calibrate’ what you do artistically to the perceived knowledge, needs and experience of your intended audience is doomed to failure, because presumably what art music audiences want is to be drawn into the artist's world either intellectually or emotionally. Great art transports people to a place that is outside of their normal existence.”

Kurt Vonnegut, whose books often take people to new places, once said that he wrote for an audience of one: his dead sister. Who do you listen to when you create? Who must you silence?


  1. Yowza! What an excellent question and how difficult to answer truthfully. As a writer, I think I've often listened to too many people. I've been an editor as well as a writer for so long that I've always believed in the power of revision—and revision—and more revision. But there's also such a thing as too much revision. Occasionally I come across early drafts of a project, sometimes years old, and I read them over, and I find in them an unexpected energy or vibrancy that might have ended up on the cutting-room floor in the version finally published.

    One thing I like about blogging is its immediacy. Even if I'm striving for posts that are more than diary entries—that is, more like columns or op-eds—something about this medium gets me to publish things faster. I've likened it before to sending messages in a bottle or to flinging ideas out there and seeing what sticks.

    So who am I writing for? Myself, my friends, and a larger audience of like-minded souls--muses rather than critics, I hope.

  2. It all depends. Ben is playing music directly to the audience. It is immediate and the audience is IN the process. Experiencing the creative process as it is happening. As a painter I am alone in the process and the audience only sees the product. My audience has little experience in general in the making of art so the process is often difficult for them to discern in the product. Do I create for an audience? Yes and no. I cannot cointrol the amount of time a viewer spends with my work. Unlike the linear experience of listening to music or reading an image can be viewed in seconds. Viewed but not necessarily seen. So I guess I retain some representational elements in my work just to somehow ensure that a viewer "gets" some of what I felt in making the peice- even if viewed for a moment. Impact I admit is something I have to consider even if subtle. Call it a minor bit of pandering to the audience. Does a writer do this? You must give away something to ensure that the reader stays reading right?

  3. That is very interesting and well stated, KV. I think that the medium in which we are working has an affect, since the audience has particular expectations, knowledge, and idiosyncracies in how they experience a particular form of art. I think this also goes to how an artist frames what they are doing. If you have a particular idea or concept that you want to deal with, either abstractly or not, giving an audience some kind of context helps to keep them along for the ride for long enough to get your point across. In art this might be maintaining some representational elements, in fiction writing it might be maintaining a story with forward motion, even if the author really just wants to use the book as a vehicle to discuss philosophy or something much more conceptual.

    Just to clarify, I don't mean to imply in my quotation used in the original article that I disregard what the audience's experience will be. Rather, I try to think about what I enjoy when I listen to music. While I have eclectic tastes, when I listen I try take in the overall effect of what I am hearing rather than listening with technical "musician ears." I strive to listen the same way in my imagination when I am creating a new piece of music. I find that that the best judge as to whether a piece is successful is whether my "listener side" likes it. I know what I like pretty well, but I only have guesses about what other listeners might like or look for. Rather than attempting to predict what they might like or understand, I make something that appeals to me and trust that there will be others out there somewhere for whom this will also resonate.

    There is an interview with author Tom Robbins in which he makes some comments about similar ideas to this:

    (I'd like to paste an excerpt here but this comment field doesn't seem to allow pasting from the clipboard).


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