Writing Notions: Audience and Purpose
April 17, 2019

Why do we write? Who do we write for? When should we listen to criticism and when should we ignore it?

The above three questions chase writers their whole lives, and the answers will almost certainly change over time and in different circumstances. I thought it was maybe worth addressing them here at HonestGamers, where we are a community of writers and gamers. Careful self-examination can help us to improve as writers.

Of course, a good rule with all writing is that no one can tell you exactly how to write. No one should even try. So this post isn't an attempt on my part to say "Write like this." Rather, it is a post intended to prompt thought specifically on the three questions I mentioned at the onset.

Why do we write? In a very general sense, we write to communicate. That's what writing is. If there weren't a need to communicate, we wouldn't have created languages and found increasingly effective ways to put words and thoughts on paper. The need to communicate is the reason writing even exists. But sometimes we write to communicate to the void, as a sort of catharsis. Sometimes--generally more often--we write to communicate to others. We write to persuade, to inform, or to entertain. This leads into the next question, which is arguably the most important of the three: who do we write for?

Our intention when we sit down to write goes a long way toward determining our audience. As I noted, we may write for catharsis. In that case, our audience need consist only of one individual: ourselves. This is the audience we have in mind when we write into a diary, or perhaps even when we start typing in a blank file on our computer, get most of something written, and then delete it without saving it or posting it anywhere. Writing for catharsis can be truly healthy.

But what about the writing we share? The second we post something online in an open forum, such as HonestGamers, our potential audience immediately becomes the entire world. Even people who don't read and write our language might very well see it and share it or otherwise interact with it, thanks to translation services. Our best friends might see it. Our worst enemies might see it.

So again I ask: who do we write for?

At HonestGamers, I have made an attempt to define our audience in general terms, so that anyone who stumbles across the site will have some idea what to expect. That audience essentially is anyone who might enjoy general game discussion (including polite debate), or who might search online for specific information about a game. Most of us will share our opinions on games in critical reviews. Some of us may blog about favorite games or franchises or industry trends. Some may write guides that amount to technical writing explaining how to conquer or better enjoy a game. Sometimes, I or other staff members might write news articles, or post Q&As or interviews. Games are the consistent subject matter connecting virtually anything any of us post here.

Even with that general guideline defined, the more specialized audience for any piece may be unclear. When we sit down to write a review, we might specifically keep in mind a gamer with previous experiences largely matching our own, and so we might not include general information those people already know because that sort of rundown may be perceived as insulting. Or we may skim over it, mostly as a means of showing that we come from a place that's similar to the one our perceived audience occupies. The site and the type of work we have attempted--usually a blog post or a review--determines a lot of what is appropriate and expected.

Once we have settled that matter in our minds, we tend to the various mechanical elements of writing, such as thesis, organization, supporting details and so forth. This post isn't really about any of those things, though. They are merely something we need to consider as we tailor our content to our specific audience.

After we determine which portion of our overall audience will receive our focus, the next question to consider is the last of the three I proposed (which is really two questions) at the start of this post: when should we listen to criticism and when should we ignore it.

I believe the answer is that we should almost always listen to any criticism that is offered genuinely (i.e. doesn't come from trolls), but then we need to run it through a filter consisting of a few questions. Perhaps the most pertinent question is how closely the person who is offering criticism comes to being our precise audience? Answering this question gets tricky, because if we are especially egotistical, the temptation is to say "Well, anyone who doesn't like what I've written clearly isn't part of my audience." This is of course false. It assumes that we as writers have already perfected our craft, which is the only way that a difference of opinion could reasonably be dismissed without careful consideration. And no one I know of has ever perfected the craft of writing, because the demands for writing and communication evolve constantly. The closest we can come to perfection is when we communicate precisely what we had to say and--in that moment--our audience also understands it precisely with no discomfort caused by those mechanical elements I mentioned.

A second question worth asking: is this reader capable of teaching me anything? This is not a question the writer vocalizes. If a reader says "I thought you did this wrong" and we as writers say "Well, you just don't know what you're talking about," that plays very poorly. But maybe we do think it. Maybe we tell ourselves "I appreciate that he was trying to help, but he doesn't know as much about this subject as I do." In these cases, I suggest that a writer exercise extreme caution, because the ego likes to run wild and most of us have let our egos get in the way of good advice on more than one occasion. It's important to remember always that even readers without years of experience can teach us something, because they can answer perhaps the very most important question each of us should ask about every single thing we write: has this bit of writing successfully communicated its message?

So there you have it. Why do we write? We write to communicate. Who do write for? We write for ourselves--and don't share it--or we write for the whole world, with a more precise subset of that population kept especially in mind. When should we listen to criticism and when should we ignore it? We should nearly always listen to criticism, but we should politely dismiss that criticism if we believe the individual offering that criticism is being insincere or is not sufficiently skilled to offer an opinion as a writer or even as a reader.

The reader, by the way, is the individual a written communication must work hardest to please. Readers let the writer know if they have succeeded in the task at hand, which is a big reason HonestGamers was built with the feedback forum serving as a key pillar in its construction. We love writers here, and we love readers. And games. We love those, too!

Most recent blog posts from Jason Venter...

hastypixels hastypixels - April 17, 2019 (10:49 PM)
The first step to good communication is listening, and that means accepting what the person - reader/audience/critic, what have you - has to say, even if you don't agree with what they're saying. That doesn't mean you have to make changes or condone them, but without considering the other's perspective, you'll gain nothing. Simply put, that's not enough to grow on.

Just that skill alone has proven invaluable to me over the years, and it's resulted in me being less verbose and more quiet as I've gotten older. That is, naturally, a good thing. Good on you for bringing this topic up, Jason. These fundamentals can be easy to forget, especially as we grow comfortable in the way we do things.
Masters Masters - April 22, 2019 (08:05 AM)
I was away and I missed this, but well said, Venter.

I think as sensitive artists (probably that's redundant), it's far too easy to fall back on the sad old nutmeg: "well, nevermind that you hated it, I wrote it FOR MYSELF, so there," which almost always holds no water and is just a self defense mechanism.

Writers write to share their unique view of the world, and they want it to be embraced and when it's not, sometimes it's easier to say, you're not who I meant to share it with anyway, or, as you say, in even more problematic fashion: you're not QUALIFIED to criticize.

It's safe enough to avoid feeding the trolls, take in everything else with respect and gratitude (because why wouldn't you?), and at least try on some of the suggestions in your workshop rather than simply trashing the source. Of course you don't have to trot out the changes in the real world if they really don't suit you... but man, artists are a tiresome bunch. So much hurt, so much salt, so much ego.
honestgamer honestgamer - April 22, 2019 (10:34 AM)
Thanks for reading, both of you! Masters, I think a reason writers let their ego show through so often is that (precisely because of the nature of writing) they've essentially just said "This is me, what do you think?" Whether writing fiction or essays or just a blog post, the nature of communicating openly means that some read criticism as "Well, you're kind of a bad person in this regard." Which isn't how most people mean it when they provide that criticism. Instead, a lot of criticism means "This interested me, and here's how I think it could be even better." As you said, a lot of writers are easily hurt, but those who want to improve have to move past that and almost take writing not as pure art, but also as a bit of a transaction. That makes it less personal and allows for growth as those people are able to more easily take on board comments they maybe aren't anxious to hear.
Masters Masters - April 22, 2019 (11:35 AM)
Yup. One of the best books about writing which I read early on (I forget the name now!) had a chapter near the start essentially named, "You Are Not What You Write." Which seems obvious, but as you pointed out, isn't.

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