Writers Focus On Topic Or Audience?

Writers must attend both to their topic, and to their audience. They must learn things both about the topics on which they write, and about the people who will evaluate their writings. But to which of these do they attend more? For some kinds of writers, idealists say that they mostly attend to their topics, and for other kinds of writers, cynics say that they mostly attend to their audience. Who is more right?

To help answer this question, I suggest a simple test. When a writer solicits commentary on her drafts, does she mostly seek out people who know about the topics on which she writes, or does she mostly seek out people who are or are like or who can predict the audience she must please? Of course there is often a strong correlation between these features, as the audience one must please often knows a lot about the topic. And sometimes the audience is part of the topic. So attending to the audience can indirectly attend to the topic, and vice versa.

Even so, since knowledge of the topic and representation of the audience are not perfectly correlated, if one sees enough writers solicit enough commentary on drafts, one should be able to make out a difference. And in my limited experience, the writers I’ve known seem to focus much more on audience than on topic. They are eager to get comments from folks who know little about the topic but could be influential in getting their writing accepted (or are like or can predict such evaluators), and pay less attention to folks who know a lot about their topic but have little influence (and aren’t much like influential folks).

But what do the rest of you see? True, even if you confirm my observation, we might explain it by saying it is just much easier to learn by reading about a topic than about an audience – so direct feedback is better for learning about audiences. But first, let’s get this datum straight.

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  • http://bur.sk/en Viliam Búr

    What kind of writing? For example when I write a textbook, ignoring what my audience is likely and unlikely to understand would ruin the value of the textbook. Generally, if I don’t get the message across, being technically corect is not helpful. This is one kind of attention to the audience. Another kind would be writing in a manner optimized for making influential readers happy. Not the same category. (For example, if I write a text for children, avoiding complex words would be an example of the former; emphasising that readers should obey their parents and teachers would be an example of the latter.)

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      If your answer depends on something, then feel free to give conditional answers. That applies to pretty much all questions, btw.

      • IMASBA

        Here’s a condition: separate your population into two groups, one that doesn’t need the money (guaranteed stipend, or already rich) and one that does. I bet the first group will be more concerned about the accuracy of the topic of their writings

    • Dean Jens

      Indeed, my first thought was that if I’m writing something for my students, I may ask my wife or one or two students to look at it because I already know the topic as well as I need to, while I don’t know (and am frequently surprised by) what my students will find clear/easy and what they will find confusing/complicated. This may fall within the scope of Robin’s penultimate sentence, though: direct feedback in this context is the easier means by which to learn about audiences, and is not necessary in this case for learning sufficiently about the topic.

  • IMASBA

    “When a writer solicits commentary on her drafts, does she mostly seek out people who know about the topics on which she writes, or does she mostly seek out people who are or are like or who can predict the audience she must please?”

    The latter, but mostly that has nothing to do with ideology, just with trying to ensure the book will sell.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Experts when developing ideas; typical readers at the book stage. This seems simply rational.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I didn’t say only book writers.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Actually, I can’t see any writer preferring the opinion of a typical member of his audience to an expert’s opinion. Typical opinion is cheaper, in whatever coin is paid; it’s sought because one can only “afford” a few experts. An expert will usually be better able to tell whether you’ve explained something clearly to the typical reader than would a typical reader. Perhaps a typical reader would better predict whether the material is interesting to a typical reader, but there’s not a lot you can do if your material doesn’t interest many readers. Academicians don’t tend to care much.

  • arch1

    My impression wrt books (based fuzzy inferences from many fuzzily-recalled acknowledgement sections) is that the consultation ratio of experts vs typical audience members may be 4 to 1 give or take a factor of 2.

    It’s getting ahead of Robin’s request, but I don’t see why it’s necessarily cynical to assert that an author has mostly attended to her audience. Unlike Stephen Diamond I think that experts often share blind spots when it comes to understanding the mental models of typical audience members. I therefore believe that, for an author who knows she knows her topic, but is in doubt about how effectively she has communicated it to her target audience, attending more to the audience is just the wise & responsible thing. .