If You Want to Write to a Larger Audience, Be More Specific

How do you become a better writer? It’s not always easy. There is, however, one sure-fire way to reach an audience faster than you ever thought possible:

Narrow your focus.

In a world full of choices, the way you stand out is not by adding to the noise, but by exposing your own uniqueness. Yes, doing this will exclude the masses. But it will also afford you the opportunity to find a tribe — a group of followers and fans ready to hear your words.

M&Ms Photo: Be Specific
Photo credit: Grace (Creative Commons)

The only way to connect with an audience

When it comes to communication, there are so many options, so many opportunities, so many forms of media. What do you do? How about the one thing most writers are unwilling to do — the one thing they absolutely dread?

Be specific.

Be particular. Play favorites. Explore the details of your surroundings, and share them. Write not for the masses, but for the individual. Forget popularity, and be just plain weird.

Here’s the truth: When you write for everyone, you write for no one. (You should tweet that or share it on Facebook.)

Exclude everyone but those who are most important to you. This is the only way to truly connect with an audience.

A writing exercise

If you struggle with this, here’s a quick exercise that might help:

  1. Focus on one thing, anything.
  2. Write about it.

It can’t be many things. Just one thing. Pick it. And focus. Write about it, and nothing else. Here are a few ideas:

  • Is it the way your dog’s hair sticks up in a certain place?
  • The funny thing your kid said the other day?
  • Your morning routine?

Whatever it is, get it into your mind, and hold it there. Now write. As you do, you will find there is great freedom in limiting yourself.

You may come up with more ideas than you ever imagined now that you’ve finally put a “frame” around your art.

There is unlimited creativity when you choose to restrict your options. It’s counter-intuitive, but it works.

There is a cost to this kind of writing

When you do this, something suffers: You lose the opportunity to be all things to all people. And that’s okay. Yes, you will eliminate a myriad of other topics on which you could’ve written.

You’ll exclude a lot of people, too. But that’s the point.

The point is this: People don’t want to read something for everyone; they want to read something for them.

I want to read something for me. You want to read something for you. That’s how people are — we’re very selfish readers.

So write for that one person for whom this will matter. Give her a name, if you like. Put her picture on your desktop. Write for her and only her. She will appreciate it. Trust me.

The paradox of specific writing

There is a paradox to this. When you stop writing for the masses, embrace your weird self, and focus on being specific, something odd happens: You reach more people. More than just your tribe. More than that one person for whom you’re writing.

Why is this? Because when you write for a specific niche, readers connect with your writing. It resonates so strongly with them that they share it with others. And it spreads.

This is why musicians and artists and authors become runaway successes and are shocked by it — because all they were doing was writing for someone specific, maybe themselves.

So don’t be surprised if when you narrow your focus, you actually end up broadening your audience. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

What’s your experience writing something specific?

*Photo credit: Grace (Creative Commons)

91 thoughts on “If You Want to Write to a Larger Audience, Be More Specific

  1. This has absolutely been true for me. When I started out, a writing mentor mentioned that I was setting myself up as a niche writer. That scared me because I thought that meant “small audience,” and it was at first. But now it means “specific, loyal, enthusiastic audience.” And I wouldn’t trade that for random masses, ever, because it wouldn’t mean as much. And I want my writing to mean something.

    1. totally. i think your engagement is great evidence that writing for a niche doesn’t mean a small audience. (you’re being humble here — you’ve built an impressive platform, Tamara.)

  2. Wow Jeff. Delightfully simple and at face value non-intuitive. “When you stop writing for the masses, you reach more people”. And as I let that burst  onto my consciousness, I realize, you are so right. And here I was, trying to be all things to the mass audience! Thanks for the insight. You’ve drastically changed my paradigm.

  3. “When you write for everyone, you write for no one.”

    This is such a good tip Jeff. When I first began blogging, I was always too keen to try and cater for the masses. But since Glen Allsopp taught me about having one person in mind when I write a post, this has dramatically changed the way I write.

    It’s made my writing much better, more specialised. Sometimes, I even jot down a description of the imagined person I am writing the post ‘for’ at the top of my draft, to keep in mind as I go along. This helps me stay focused.

    1. i think if it’s not clear from your writing, then writing it in an about page won’t help. it’s a paradigm you’re shooting for — not necessarily a topic. sometimes, your audience understands it better than you do.

  4. I’m really struggling with this one.  I write about writing–academic & fiction tips, but I also occasionally want to share some of my own non-fiction.  Ironically, that’s the stuff that gets the most comments.  Still testing the waters as to which way I’m going to go.

  5. I think this one thing is what prevents me from writing. I may feel like writing (often), but I just can’t seem to narrow down the topic. It’s rather messy, and I have to chop out a lot of my writing afterwards.  It seems like, without all the worthless words coming out onto the page, I cannot clearly envision the piece. I tend to think WHILE I talk, and it seem like writing is the same; I form my thoughts completely AS I write rather than before I write. Unfortunately, it wastes a lot of time.

    Ironically, I really appreciate your fine-tuned posts. They’re a great example to me. THANKS!

  6. We always assume that we need large traffic when targeted traffic is alot more effective. I learned this the hard when when I use an adwords campaign and didn’t really know what I was doing. I think you’re alot more effect when you write about your specific niche. Great post Jeff!

  7. Great post. Being a father, lover of sports, believer in Jesus and Logistics professional there are many opportunities for me for me to select one area to really give my time to. I’m going to try this out and see how it works. Thanks!

  8. Really good advice. This is one of the hardest part about building a platform of me.  I am going to set out to write specifically this week… about… something… 

  9. I like to remind people that there are now 7 billion people on this planet. If each of us is one-in-a-million, that means there are potentially 7,000 other people out there just like us. If we can reach them, we can reach more. 

    Specificity only seems wonky because we’re constantly subjected to lowest common denominator mediocrity these days. Something neat happens when we zoom in tight on one thing – we find ourselves. It’s crazy awesome how this concept works. 

  10. When I limit my focus of my blog post to my son’s autism or bipolar, my regular readers still comment, and the ones who have an interest in autism may spread the word. 

    I get to educate a little, and let people into what it’s like to raise a teen with special needs. There are fewer writers who talk about the challenges with raising a teen amongst the zillions of mom bloggers.

  11. Love it.  And yet, while reading this I couldn’t help but wonder if this is the problem with the Christian world.  Whether it’s our music, movies, books, or even sermons sometimes, the message seems so vague and impersonal.  To go off what you said, by trying to make God’s glory fit everyone, they make a god that is glorious to no one.

    I think a big problem in the church today is a lack of identity and distinction.  We say Jesus is personal and specific and then go out of our way to generalize him. 

    Personally, I intend to not only apply this to my writing, but to my faith.

  12. This is a bit tough for me. I still haven’t quite found that one specific thing I’d like to focus on with my blog. There’s like over a ton of travel blogs out there and they all worked so hard on their stuff. Most of them travel solo, or have traveled around the world, whereas I’m only a holiday traveler. I’m really searching my brains for this specific thing.

    But thanks so much for the reminder! 🙂

  13. Thanks for the interesting article Jeff. I love the idea about writing on the things closest to my heart no matter how specific they might be. I have always been afraid of weirding people out too much, but thanks for setting me free on this topic. I look forward to becoming more well defined and interesting to people through my fine art.

  14. This was so helpful!  Thanks so much.  I’m going to work on it right away!  Going to start by identifying the person I write best for…who it is I want to reach.  Then I”ll practice writing for that person. 

    Can’t wait to get started!

    All the best to to you,
    Darling

  15. In 2010 I self-published a book about teaching, The Education of a Teacher(Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks), for two specific audiences: about 4,000 people who had gone through my high school classes, and teachers and almost-teachers in general.  The creative-nonfiction stories were both specific and universal.  These stories have different messages for each audience.  With former students and townspeople they are a reminder of their hometown and history, and with teachers they are inspirational.  Because I knew my audiences I was able to sell and advertise to each. 

  16. Great advice, but hard to accomplish. It’s so tempting to write something that won’t offend anyone and will appeal to all, but doing that actually makes it appeal to no one. 

  17. A friend recently talked me into creating a fictional character that would be the personification of my ideal target audience. And so I did. Even named her. It might sounds silly, but right now it’s so much easier to come up with blog ideas…

  18. Jeff, you stir up a lot of thoughts–kind of like the middle school science experiment, jar full of water and various types of dirt, the muck rises then settles in layers (and I’ve got a lot of muck in my mind). Saddleback well over a decade ago narrowed the church’s focus to the point people could describe exactly who they wanted to reach. They even named the target audience, Sam and Sally. And they reached them.

    I know when I write for my blog or look for a guest blogger, I do have certain parameters that guide what I do and who I ask. The longer I write, the narrower my focus becomes.

    I also think of John Locke’s advice in his eBook, the one you recommended months ago (by the way, thank you very much). He reiterates your narrow-focus message in “How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months.”

    Good thoughts.–Tom

  19. Thanks for this encouragement. I write a couple of different genres, but they are all rather narrowly focused, and ironically not overlapping with each other.  Several friends have told me I ought to adapt a particular piece to fit a more mainstream genre that isn’t ‘me’. I had been temped to follow that advice, but now I”m rethinking it. Thanks for the food for thought.

  20. Do you have ANY idea how many epiphanies just fired off in my brain? ” Give her a name, if you like. Put her picture on your desktop. Write for her and only her. She will appreciate it — trust me.”

    My “her” is my granddaughter, due to arrive Feb. 19.

    https://jacksonstory.wordpress.com/

    I’ve been doing that and didn’t even know it! What an incredible post (as usual); so much to digest, kind of like a grand buffet. And I ate it all, licked the plate and gobbled up the crumbs.

    Gosh I’m full. Thanks, Jeff.

  21. Thanks for writing for the writers, Jeff.  And – as it works – for a lot of other folks, too.  I know I benefit greatly from your pointed posts.  You model what you teach, which is the best teaching of all.  

  22. “I knew as soon as I started reading this piece, that this is what has been keeping me stuck for ages. Of course, I figured, if I am going to write, I have to write BIG for the masses. Never mind that I write best when I know exactly who I am writing for, and the more specific the better.
    I guess we all have a craving for greatness somewhere down deep but greatness is relative and specific most of the time. I hope and pray that I can keep these truths in the front of my mind and just be me, because it’s much more fun and a whole lot easier too.
    Thanks, Jeff
    Kathy Brady

  23. Very interesting.

    Here’s a question: when I write for one person, can I change the person each time I write something new?
    Perhaps I address a specific question in my email or a comment on my blog. Would this apply? Or maybe I want to address a specific need of moms with boys one day and then moms with girls another day. Would this still fall into the narrow category?

    Am I making *any* sense? LOL

    1.  Hi Christin. No. Not really. The idea is to keep writing to the same person so that you develop consistency. That is, if you’re trying to build a platform. If you’re doing a bunch of freelance writing for other outlets (e.g. magazines, websites, etc.), then you could do this. Otherwise, it might come off as confusing.

    2. This is a problem that I face too. I’m wearing too many hats, because I have so many interests. Adoption, Marriage, Homeschooling, Encouragement for Moms, etc… Now I guess I should look through, weed out, and camp in just one area… is this what you’re saying?

  24. In a strange way I guess I do this.  I pretty much write for me.  Part of what I write is memoir and perhaps a history for my family, the rest is primarily my opinions and views.  I am sometimes amazed at the people who agree and follow my ramblings.  

    When you think about it… writing for the masses would mean we all like the same type of books, articles, blogs, etc.  In that perspective that would be impossible wouldn’t it?

    Right on the money Jeff!
    b

  25. I like that you write about this.. because I’ve always been thinking that it has to be better to just create art (all kinds) from our hearts – something not meant for the whole world. because it is more personal, more true and more real and therefore it can reach more people.. because it is so personal that people can relate to it. Ive never really been able to explain why, thanks!

  26. Thanks for the really great post Jeff. I’ve started out in my little niche, and this post gives me confidence to keep going, get even more specific, develop my voice, rather than worrying about getting a broad audience with broad, generic topics. 

  27. Just attended Ben Arment’s Dream Year conference where he shared a quote from The Patriot.  “Aim small, miss small.”  Focusing your message to increase your impact was exactly his point.  What a timely reminder as I sharpen my focus on helping young couples get their marriages off to a great financial start!

  28. Jeff this post plus the content of one of your recent emails: subject, theme, objective exercise was super helpful. Not just for my almost-shipped blog but for a couple other projects. The points you made apply to ideas or projects as much as writing.

    Thanks Jeff!

  29. Writing something specific can be fantastic, but it has to be available to that target market or audience. Otherwise it feels like you are talking to yourself.

  30. Thanks for sharing this Jeff. I definitely agree. In fact, this goes back to one of the basic lesson taught in English 101: Define your target audience.

    The more you narrow that audience, the better you understand their needs and desires.

    I recently decided to write for Christians who want to improve their marriage. Your Manifesto has motivated me to stop dreaming and start doing.

  31.  Fantastic advice.  Coincidentally enough, it’s the very thing I’ve been exploring and learning the past few weeks myself. 

    In my writing business, I’ve had to force myself to choose where to specialize.  That has led to more specific posts on my blog, as well.  I wanted to help, inform, and chat with other writers there.  I found myself with nearly zero traffic.  Then I began to just forget about the “masses” and write to my passion (and knowledge).  Science fiction and fantasy how-tos were born.  And my traffic shot up.  More than that, I’ve met some really cool people in the past couple of weeks. 

    It’s still scary at times but I’m oh-so-glad I did it.

    You inspired me enough that I took my response to your post and wrote my own post.  I linked back to you here.

    Again, great post.

  32. For several years, I tend to write young adults novel because I think that’s largest market in my country. But two years ago, I thought, f*ck it. They still didn’t appreciate my kind of writing even after published 5 books. I decided to root my original love in adult romance novels. And guess what, my first adult romance was named as romance book of the year (2010) by my publisher. So happy and decide to continue writing adult romance. This year, I release my eighth and ninth book. 🙂 

  33. I agree to a point. I think we should write about the things that inspire us, fuel our passions, and if we have many passions we can seem to be going in many directions at once. Looking at my passions and worrying about not having a niche, I then read your article and decided that all those passions came from my interests, and I am one person. writing for myself is in a way a small focus, because maybe those diverse passions have a central theme, the small focus. The more I write the more I see those diverse ideas really come from a central root, and so I am following your advice after all. This blog has been a great encouragement to me, thanks.

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