For quite a few years, I’ve been teaching students how to write, coaching writers through the writing process, and providing editing support to writers at all phases of maturity and ability.
No matter what project we are working on or where we are in the process, I find myself returning to two critical questions:
- What is your purpose?
- Who is your audience?
These questions matter. They direct all of our writing.
What message is our message? Who are we conveying that message to?
Sometimes, beginning writers say to me, “I have to write a five-page paper about [insert topic here],” and I reply, “What do you want to convey? Are you trying to inform? persuade? entertain?” They often don’t know, so we spend time in that realm for a bit. Next, I ask, “Who is your audience? Do they have background knowledge of your topic or are they strangers to it? Are they adults? children? How does knowledge of your audience shape what you plan to say?”
These questions are clarifying. They help the writer start to shape her message, to choose vocabulary, to select anecdotes. When she has a group of people in the seats of her mental auditorium and she can picture their backgrounds and level of expertise, when she understands the reason she is writing and the message she hopes to convey, she can begin to frame her message.
I have been having conversations like this for a very long time, so this morning, when I was preparing to draft this week’s blog and I had, as I often have, a crisis of identity, I asked myself the same questions.
It went something like this.
What am I even going to write about this week? Why do I think anyone will want to read it? Do I have anything valid to say?
I was sounding like one of my students. So, I replied to myself:
“Ok, ok, come back off the ledge…breathe…think…what is your purpose? why are you still writing this blog after five years? What compels you? What are you hoping to accomplish? Who is reading your writing? What do they hope to hear? How will you convey that message? What is your message?”
Wow. Thanks for asking. I think I need to spend some time on this. I often write about healing — physical, emotional, and spiritual. I write about writing. I write about recovering from a life of soldiering. I write about finding rest. I write about creating space. I write about my faith. I write about my failures.
“That’s a good start. Who do you picture as your audience?”
That is more difficult. I have 170 followers, and a typical post gets about 40 views. I imagine most of my readers resonate with something I have to say about faith, autoimmune disease, or living intentionally. I guess that a chunk of my readers are friends and family. And the most important, and surely most critical, member of my audience is myself.
“And how does that inform your writing?”
Whatever my topic is has to originate with something I am processing on my own — a current autoimmune flare, a family transition, something I am learning in my spiritual life. I think what I try to do in my blog is to narrate the inner workings of my mind — first to help myself process, but also to allow others to see that process because I am, and always will be, a teacher. I did this in the classroom — I worked through every assignment my students did, walked them through my process, explaining it as I went. And I just can’t stop my think aloud protocol.
“See how clarifying this conversation can be? Do you ever wonder if you might expand your audience?”
From time to time, I wonder if I should take one more step in my writing. Should I be intentional about promoting my blog? Should I put some of my blog posts together in a book and publish it? Should I start from scratch and write my story of soldiering, crashing, and finding life in the next chapter? Who would read it? Who would even publish it? Who am I kidding? I need to just stay in my lane.
“This is your lane, dear. Writing has always been your lane. It’s as natural to you as breathing. When your fingers aren’t clicking on keys or scrawling out notes on a page, you begin to wither. You must — you must — keep writing. You said it yourself, primarily it is for you, but because you are also a teacher, it’s natural to explore the opportunity of allowing others to watch your process. They may just observe for a while and then quietly walk away. But you might inspire someone to try something new — homeopathy, yoga, openly grieving, or dramatically changing the way that they live out their days. Who’s to know?”
But I’m scared! I don’t know where I would even start. It’ll be so much work! And what if it’s all for nothing.
“The writing itself is the gift. You already know that. The power is in the process.”
It’s true. And that’s what I’ve always wanted my students — my friends, my family — to know more than anything. Often we don’t [I don’t] know our purpose or our audience before we step into the process and start putting words on the page. And it is in putting the words on the page that we discover our purpose, our audience, ourselves.
Yes, I know that not everyone is compelled to spend an hour or more every day putting words on the page. I know that that not every single person would feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with an audience that might just include family and friends but also might include someone sitting at a laptop in her kitchen in India.
But I am compelled. And I am, oddly, comfortable.
So I continue. Because this is my purpose, and you, apparently, are my audience.
Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.Proverbs 19:21