Lessons from the Writing Workshop #15 — Cultivating Our Readers

As much attention as we might lavish on our work, we know—unless we are journaling or doing other writing just for ourselves—a piece of writing is not complete until it is received by a reader. Communication is an important part of what we do, and we not only want to speak; we want to be heard.

This is why rejection from a publisher or a journal can feel so devastating. We are trying to send out our message but it isn’t being received.

We might fantasize that there is a large pool of voracious but undifferentiated readers just waiting to gobble up our latest poem or story or essay. The truth is somewhat different; most authors these days have to do the hard work of identifying their potential readers, figuring out how to reach them, engage their attention, and satisfy them enough that they will want to read your next work too.

Of course you have friends and family and colleagues, and ideally they are a core part of your readership. At their best, they cheer you on, read your work, give you constructive feedback, buy your books and tell others to do the same. They might even throw you a party and invite their friends to introduce you to new readers. To make this happen, you need to train them by talking about your work (what you’re excited about, not just your neurotic doubts), telling them what you need and letting them know how they can help.

But even if every single person you know is perfect in their support of you, you probably don’t know enough people. Publishers want not dozens or even a few hundred people to buy and read your work, they wants many thousands of people to do so. So you need to start building additional support among—gasp!—strangers. It’s part of the process many writers, who by nature may be introverted, don’t relish. But even for the shyest person, there are techniques that can help. Let’s take these one at a time.

Identify: Frequently when I ask a newer writer who they imagine their readership to be, they will tell me “Everyone.” Then I get to explain to them that there is no “everyone” anymore, that capitalism has segmented us into niche markets and interest sectors, and that you would need an impossibly large budget to reach “everyone.” Even Ford or Apple, who have bigger marketing budgets than you or I will ever have, don’t try to reach “everyone.”

We are always making decisions in our writing that are either based in an idea (conscious or unconscious) of who we want to reach or that determine who we are going to reach. As my mother said to me (and I choose to believe she was trying to be helpful), “If you want heterosexuals to read your work, honey, then you need to start writing about heterosexuals.” The decision to write in English gears your work to people literate in that language. The kind of diction you choose—writing in a particular vernacular, or using really elevated language—creates parameters of audience.

We might be primarily speaking to women, or a specific cultural community, or intellectuals, or young people. Even among these broad categories, there may be further specifying: African-American women aged 18-25 who attend college, for example.

Having a solid sense of who you want to speak to may help you in the crafting of your work—if you are primarily intending to communicate with a bilingual audience, for example, you can use Spanish freely and not worry about translating, something you might need to do if you imagine your audience as primarily English-speaking.

Reach: Knowing whom you want to reach will save you a lot of time in your efforts to connect with and grow your audience. Ways to get on your selected readers’ radar include: publishing in literary journals (both print and online), give public readings of your work, use social media to increase the visibility of your work, and use real world networks of groups and organizations connected to your topics. No matter which strategy you pursue you want to choose the appropriate venues to reach your intended audience. When Sage Bennet published her book Wisdom Walk, she used the network of New Thought churches throughout the U.S. to set up speaking engagements and workshops. Kim Dower set up readings all across the country to promote her poetry book Slice of Moon, and arranged to be interviewed on broadcast media about caring for someone with dementia, one of the themes in her book. Cara Chow conducted a blog tour to promote her novel, Bitter Melon, penning content for other writing blogs to reach new audience. Yvonne Estrada’s chapbook, My Name on Top of Yours, also included photographs, and she arranged for an exhibition of those photographs in a gallery which serves the community about which she is writing; she even arranged to participate in a reading at the gallery. The exhibition helped spur sales of her chapbook.

Engage: But you don’t want to wait until you have a book to start thinking about reaching and engaging your audience. You want to start right now. Anytime you meet someone, let them know what you’re writing. Again, talk about it in a positive way, not about how you are suffering over it. What’s interesting to you about it? What are you learning from it? If you are enthusiastic, that will spark their enthusiasm. Chances are, when you see them again, they’ll ask you about your progress, and you’ll tell them. They become invested in what you are doing and are potential readers when the work is finished.

Find opportunities to read your work in public, and get good at doing that. Many independent bookstores and coffeehouses host open readings, at which anyone can get up a read for 5 minutes. Sometimes you have to show up early to sign up for a limited number of slots. Make sure your work is strong, and practice with a friend to make sure your reading of your work is powerful. If you live in a community that doesn’t have a bookstore or coffeehouse, you can have a house party and ask your friends to invite their friends; your reading will be part of the entertainment. Or, if your work is appropriate, you could volunteer to read at a senior center, the local chamber of commerce, or in a bar (you can open for the band.)

When you do read in front of people, definitely stay for and meet the other readers, and take the time to hang out with the audience. If appropriate, collect contact info from people who seem to respond to the work. Start building a list of emails or mailing addresses. One thing I do is send out an annual holiday poem, designed in a postcard format, to my list. People like receiving work from me and it signals that I am engaged with them as well.

You can also engage through social media—Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. This method can be easier for the introverted than those face-to-face encounters. Build your list by connecting with friends of friends. Some writers build their networks by writing a blog and inviting comments so that you begin a dialogue. Retain info for everyone you make contact with, and find ways to communicate on a regular basis. It’s important that you post content that is of value to those that follow you, and not only self-promoting messages. Engagement is about building relationships, and that is of course a two-way street.

Satisfaction: We’d like our readers to find satisfaction in what we produce; we can control some factors but not all. We can write with as much skill as we can muster; we can work to deliver clarity and interesting characters and significance in the themes of our work. We can consider the reader’s experience as we write, and make sure they’re given what they need to understand and enjoy the journey. We can intelligently select the appropriate audience for the work, and we can communicate accurately about it up front, so that readers have a good idea what to expect.

Still, we have to accept that not everybody is going to love everything we produce. Even then, we hope we have given them enough that they will be willing to continue to check us out next time.

In the writing workshop, talking about getting your work to its readership is an important part of the process. Brainstorming with other writers about techniques that work for them, venues for reading, which publications are looking for work, and how people are using social media can provide vital support on your journey to cultivating readers. Although writing can appear to be solitary, it is ultimately about communicating with others, and the experience of your writing being received by readers will bring new richness to your writing life.


Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.


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