How to Successfully Bug Your Readers

“Why are you bugging them?”

A favorite journalism professor used to insist that no story ought to be published, regardless of how beautifully reported and executed, unless its creator could first answer this question on behalf of readers.

So I’ll ask it to you, regarding whatever current project you’re laboring over: why are you bothering people about this? What’s the ultimate message you’re hoping to leave them with? And why is that message important to their lives?

Folks are busy. They’re immensely distracted. They’re tired. Innundated with data and media and bids for their already divided attention and already feeling guilty about that whole slew of books they’ve purchased but haven’t gotten around to reading quite yet.

What is it you so desperately need to tell them? If you aren’t clear on this point, nobody else will be either. At best, you’ll disappoint your target audience. At worst, you’ll be ignored by them entirely.

To be clear: I’m not encouraging you to make value judgments about your work based on its potential historical or social significance. I’m not blasting writers of fantasy, or writers of ad copy, or writers of poop and fart jokes.

In fact, I’ve been laughing to myself all day long about a poop joke I heard on TV yesterday (I’m on vacation, so am carbo-loading on dumb sitcoms), and I was thinking to myself just a bit ago how brilliant this show’s team of writers must be, and how thankful I am that comedy writers exist at all.

The world is brutal and ugly; we need art to bring us face to face with the unpleasant truths that make it so, and we also need art that will help us temporarily forget these truths before life’s brutality so overwhelms us that we stick our collective heads in the oven. Both are valuable. Both are essential.

Instead, the question can be thought of as a way in to Creative Bigger Picture thinking, regardless of your chosen subject. It’s a way of refocusing your creative lens squarely on your audience, and it can serve as a valuable reality check when a project is going off the rails and you can’t figure out why.

So, I’ll ask it again: “Why are you bugging them?”

Here’s how I’d answer it in this moment: I’m bugging you with this blog post (and this blog in general) not only because I like writing about writing, but also because I believe I’ve gleaned some valuable insights into the creative process over my years as a professional writer, and I want to share practical and useful tips to help you write faster, better, and smarter stuff. And I’ve learned by now that it’s all down to audience, always, always.

There’s my answer. What’s yours?

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