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How the “Ideal Reader” Myth Hurts Your Writing Process

A lot of writing advice encourages you to market to your audience by defining your ideal reader.

It says to think of your reader as one person, create a profile and write for that person.

You’ll even find templates for defining your ideal reader — fake head shots and all. They’ll ask you to name the reader and list their demographics, interests and job. They’ll ask you to explain why this reader is totally in love with what you write.

The problem? This exercise does nothing to help you understand what actual readers want from you.

The “ideal reader” myth

When you set out to define your “ideal reader,” you’ve probably already decided what you want to write — maybe even written it.

You’re sitting on that romance novel, self-help book or blog about what cats have taught you about love, and now you’re ready to market it. So you dream up a reader who fits the bill. They’re male or female, between ages 18 and 54, probably own cats and are single. So, obviously, they’ll love your blog.

Voila. You’ve got your ideal reader.

Except that’s useless. All you’ve done is reverse engineer an audience for yourself, and you can’t do that with real people.

If you want to attract actual readers, you’re going to have to do it the other way around: Learn what real readers want, and write it for them.

How to write what your audience wants to read

To understand who your audience (actually) is and how to write for them, I’ve come up with a simple exercise.

Borrowing from the way software developers plan projects by first working to understand their end users through a user story, I define readers with what I call a “reader story.”

The reader story is a simple way to understand who you write for, what they need from you and why.

The exercise might feel similar to fantasizing about your ideal reader, but it’s goal is different. Instead of inventing a reader for something you’re determined to write, the reader story helps you plan your writing around helping the audience achieve some goal.

To create your reader story, fill in this statement about the typical person you expect to read your work:

As a [type of person], they want [some goal] so that [some reason].

For example:

As a millennial mother of young kids,

They want advice on raising children, self-care and relationships,

So that they can balance being a parent with a full-time job while still enjoying me-time and a relationship with their partner.

That reader story might drive content for a parenting and lifestyle site like Scary Mommy.

If you don’t know anything about the typical person who might read your work, do your research before creating a reader story. Don’t invent a reader you hope exists.

How to use your reader story to plan writing projects

Once you create a reader story, it should drive all the decisions you make about your writing.

Does that blog topic help the reader achieve some goal? Does that book cover appeal to their some reason? Are those marketing platforms frequented by this type of person?

Write down your reader story, and stick it somewhere you’ll see every time you write.

Keeping your reader’s needs top of mind can help you make decisions about:

  • Which topics to tackle to get your story across.
  • Your goals for what you write.
  • Which products make sense for disseminating your story or ideas.
  • Which platforms are best for distributing your work.
  • The tone and voice you’ll use to speak to your readers.
  • When and how to release your work to have the greatest impact.

Developers rely on the user story to focus on features customers actually want — and leave behind the stuff that’s super cool technologically but totally unnecessary in real life.

Use the reader story the same way in your writing. You might love the anecdote you’ve found to open that article about your grandmother’s butternut squash soup recipe… but does it serve the reader’s goal of, you know, making a good butternut squash soup?

Yeah, the reader story will make you get real honest with yourself about the value of what you’re writing.

For more guidance on using your reader story to plan writing projects and answer those big questions for everything you write, I invite you to download my free guide: “How to Write Anything (Well).”

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4 Ways to Create (And Maintain) a Writing Habit

When I wrote my first book in 2013, I was newly married and working a full-time job. While writing, that dream of every writer’s heart whispered to me every morning: What if this is what you could do to make a living?

As I’d done for decades, I silenced that voice of hope with a quick and definitive, “Yeah, right. Nobody’s even going to read this thing.”

However, I’d just read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. Spurred to fight Resistance, I wrote my 50,000-word book in six months by waking at 5 a.m. every weekday and writing for an hour — whether or not I felt like I had anything worthwhile to say.

I accomplished that by changing my mind-set. What I had once approached as a pastime turned into an obligation. Where once I’d wait (far too long) for inspiration to strike, I found W. Somerset Maugham’s words to be true: “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

When I experienced the truth that a writing life is built upon writing—a novel concept, I know — everything changed.

When my hobby became my habit, my identity changed to match my expectations.

I no longer said, “I want to write.” I said, with confidence, “I am a writer.”

It wouldn’t be until years later — after I’d become a full-time freelance editor, author, and ghostwriter — that I’d learn the four-step habit-building process I’d unintentionally worked through.

And that education, ironically enough, would come through a book project I had the glad opportunity to assist with early on in its development.

Atomic Habits (for writers)

The subtitle for James Clear’s Atomic Habits, a New York Times bestseller, is An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Its tagline is “Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results.” Through many well-researched examples, Clear presents reason after reason why a 1 percent change for the better every day is more beneficial than striving for one defining moment, or, worse, stagnating.

He also offers clear steps on the process of building better habits. Essentially, you need to discover your cue, craving, response, and reward. (Atomic Habits goes in-depth on each of these steps, and I recommend picking up the book for a fuller understanding.)

How to create and maintain a writing habit

To transpose his ideas to the writing world, let’s consider how each step could look in your writing life. Each quote below is from “How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick,” an excerpt of Atomic Habits.

1. “The cue triggers your brain to initiate a behavior.”

Your cue could be the place you write, the music you listen to, or the tools you use.

My cue was just getting myself from my bed to my office chair in less than ten minutes every morning. If I could get myself in front of a keyboard before conscious thought (a.k.a. Resistance) entered my brain, I could convince myself, Well, I’m already here. Might as well write.

Author and podcaster Sean McCabe automates lights in his office to change to a certain color when he’s scheduled time for himself to write.

I highly recommend using one or all of these cues: writing in the same place, at the same time every day, while listening to the same kind of music. As you establish your writing habit through repetition, your body and mind start to correlate that place, that time, and that music with, Well, it must be time to write.

Now, pause here to consider what your cue could be.

2. “Cravings…are the motivational force behind every habit.”

Clear notes, “What you crave is not the habit itself but the change in state it delivers.”

In other words, I didn’t crave getting up at 5 a.m., at least not initially. I craved the sense of accomplishment from being a writer working toward a long-sought-after goal. To be honest, I also craved the moment I’d be able to tell friends and family, “I wrote a book.”

Your craving may be the same, but it could also be to make money or a living through your words, or to earn respect for your opinions or skill.

Now, ask yourself, “What change of state am I seeking as a result of my writing?”

3. “The response is the actual habit you perform.”

Writers ought to have only one response to their cues and cravings: writing!

Of course, being a writer today requires far too many extracurricular activities, like promoting your list or pitching agents, but the habit you must perform without fail to become a writer and stay a writer is to write.

Yet, I’m willing to bet, most of us struggle to do that consistently for a host of reasons.

That’s why following Clear’s four stages of habit-making — which loop back upon themselves — is so helpful.

4. “Rewards are the end goal of every habit.”

Once your cue has led to your craving, your craving has led to your response, your response leads to your reward. You finally get to enjoy the fruits of your labors.

These rewards can take a few forms.

Maybe it’s the endorphin kick when you finally figure out your plot or when one of your characters surprises you on the page.

Maybe it’s the realization that you’re doing what you’ve always said you’d do.

Maybe it’s being able to talk about your work-in-progress because you finally have a work-in-progress.

For me, my reward was Pavlovian. I used Scrivener’s word count goal feature to meet my daily word count goals. Every time I’d cross that number, Scrivener would give me a pleasant ding and a pop-up of congratulations.

Eventually, I craved hearing that noise.

For all of those early mornings, my habit loop wasn’t about writing a book and whatever rewards could come from publication. Rather, my habit loop was much simpler: I just wanted to hear that chime, signifying that I’d met my goal.

And, by just getting 1 percent better every day, I eventually wrote a book, published it, and then turned that work into a career in writing.

That whisper of fear I once had has been replaced with a daily shout of joy: This is what I get to do for a living. (And I have incredible clients to thank for that.)

If you’re ready to transform your writing hobby into a writing habit, I hope you’ll experience the same kind of identity shift.

You’re not going to write.

You are a writer.

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