The most important question a writer asks themselves is: What do I have to say?
They write best when the answer is: something important. They write well when the answer is: something clear, interesting, or entertaining. If the answer is: nothing. They should consider giving themselves a well-deserved break.
Of course, writers should ask themselves this question generally, but also specifically. As in, what am I saying as I sit down with my laptop or notebook, to finish this specific article or book about this specific topic? I suppose the same applies to tweets, to scripts, to sales letters and to basically any form of content. Everything we publish should be subjected to this scrutiny.
But more tactically, I think there are two other critical questions that writers need to ask themselves. Especially these days in a fragmented media environment where everything has to fight its own way for a little share of attention. It’s what I try to ask myself and I ask my writers to ask as well (when we heed our own advice we are successful, and when we fail to, we unsurprisingly are not)
Those questions are as follows:
Who am I saying this to?
How are they going to hear about it?
If you do not have clear answers to these questions, then your strategy is hope. Viral hope. And hope is not a strategy.
It’s sad, sometimes I talk to authors who have spent years on a book and when I ask who their ideal reader is, it is clear that they have never thought about this question—and now it is too late to do anything about! By the way, answers such as “people who read Malcolm Gladwell books,” “smart people,” “everyone” and “myself” don’t count. This is lazy at best, delusional at worst.
Thinking about your audience is an exercise in empathy. It also helps create a standard by which to judge the work—as in, now you can see whether you successfully got across what you had to say to the people you want to hear it. Every writer has their own unique tone and style, but these traits must also be flexible and able to accommodate the specific goals of a piece. Again, this is only possible if you’ve bothered to put a few seconds—though more likely serious time—into thinking about who the hell you intend to consume this thing you are creating.
The first question leads to the second. Now that you know who they are, how do you intend for these readers to find your work? There can be many answers to the question, but the point is that it is now firmly your job to answer it. The world of content is not a meritocracy, great stuff might deserve a spot at the top but it is by no means entitled to one these days.
If you’ve built up a platform of dedicated readers, then good for you, because you’ve partially answered this question (“I’ll post it on my social media or send an email”). Maybe the answer is: I’ve written something that I know will generate discussion within the community it was aimed at and I plan to seed it there. Maybe the answer is: The site has a big built-in readership about this exact topic.
Though this sounds similar to marketing and to some extent might be, this is really something that comes before. It’s checking—before the cement has hardened on the writing—that it actually has a viable shot of getting in front of an audience. The point is: when essentially anyone can “publish” then it falls on the producer to make sure that people see what they have created. This is true whether you’ve sold a manuscript for a large advance or you’re writing for a tiny blog.
Because if it doesn’t have a shot, if you don’t know who that shot is supposed to be in front of generally, then you’re just journaling. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but don’t blame anyone else if that begins to feel lonely or onanistic.
It’s not the market’s fault. It’s the writer’s fault for neglecting part of their job.
It’s your fault.