If you are writing a blog for your own satisfaction and don't expect anyone to read it, you don't have to worry about who might be your market. But if you want others to read your words, for the satisfaction it brings or for the money you might earn as a travel writer or memoirist, you should know your market and know it well. You will have won half the battle already if you read a lot, from websites to print newspapers and magazines, from books, reviews of books, opinion pieces on the Internet and in print. In short: to know your market well, you must keep informed and enjoy doing so. The more you read, wherever you read it, the better you will know your potential audience.
I don't ordinarily read self-help business books, but I was fascinated by Stuff Americans Are Made Of, published by MacMillan way back in 1996, but still available. Written by two authors (Joshua Hammond and James Morrison), I believe much of what they reported is still true. They talk about the cultural forces that define Americans, that make us in many ways different from people elsewhere. These are the seven forces they describe that make up American cultural attitudes:
- Americans insist on a choice, keyword CHOICE.
- Americans believe in the pursuit of impossible dreams, keyword DREAMS.
- Americans are obsessed with Big and More, keywords BIG, MORE (and Texas?)
- Americans are impatient with the use of their time, keyword TIME. "I want it and I want it now!"
- Americans accept mistakes, keyword OOPS!
- Americans can't resist the urge to Improvise, keyword IMPROVISE. "Let's put on a play!"
- Americans are fixed on What's New, keyword NEW.
Keep these in mind as you shape your article. Write with these attitudes in the back of your mind, and ask yourself when you go over your first draft if you have appealed to any one or more of these attitudes in your article. Have you told your readers there is more than one way to approach your subject or visit your destination? Do you appeal to the reader's dreams in any way with your portrayal of the place you are writing about? Are there things in your piece about something that is the biggest, the best, the oldest, perhaps?
At the same time, you don't want to drone on about anything at too great a length, as your reader is always aware of how little time he or she thinks is available to read this article, so be concise, summing up inchoate thoughts in terse and pithy remarks. But don't count on the reader being patient with your mistakes. You are supposed to be an expert on the subject about which you are writing. On the other hand, if you have committed a dumb stunt of some kind while traveling, mention it, especially if you can bring some humor into the article, and your reader will more than likely identify with you as a fellow human being and not infallible.
Then, to satisfy the urge to improvise, let your reader feel the joy of winging it, of getting off the schedule or beaten path and stumbling serendipitously into something new and unexpected. Finally, anything new and daring can be touched upon to keep readers feeling on top of the latest in trends, fashion or styles.
Naturally, it's almost impossible to try to cover all these seven attitudes your reader (and the all-important editor to whom you are pitching your story) has in their common cultural matrix. But you should evoke at least one of them in your piece, to help give it life and to resonate with whoever is looking at it.
The Kaleidoscope Mind
A few years back, Normal Mailer wrote in Parade that television commercials should be banned, especially when concerning children's programming. He believed that children today are not given enough stories with narratives, that they are instead deluged with fast-changing images designed to capture their attention, resulting in a blizzard of images that only confuse them. The result, he wrote, is loss of narrative, where they learn from stories, with beginnings, middles and endings. Much, if not all, of good learning can be attributed to story-telling, he says, and young people today don't get enough of that when they're toddlers and have the most impressionable minds. He attributes the decrease in reading of books to this kind of early razzle-dazzling of the young mind.
Even Friedrich Nietzsche was concerned about what he called "premeditated stupidity" of the youthful soul, overwhelmed by "the massive influence of impressionsÂ?so great, surprising, barbaric, and violently balled up into hideous clumps." By stupidity, he didn't mean poor IQ or ignorance, but numbness, clogged minds. And this was at the end of the 19th century!
What everyone does these days is to try to shake off the enormity of information pressing down upon us by escaping, by keeping on the move, by moving away from whatever we heard last and sliding easily into the next thing. Then the next thing, too, is tossed away and we move on to the next, and the next. "That's the one real reality. Moving on," says author Thomas de Zengotita in Harper's Magazine back in 2002.
What does this mean to you, the writer? It means you have only a short while to catch the attention of your editor and thence the reader. Recent surveys have shown the attention span of your readers is pretty short:
- They will watch a film or TV program for up to 7 minutes before deciding to continue or to stop watching. They're already seated at home with nothing better to do, so they can afford the luxury of all that time.
- They will check out the first paragraph of an article in a paper or magazine or on the Web before making the same decision. Reading, after all, is more interactive than merely viewing a film or TV program, so demands more focused attention.
- They will read up to a maximum of three pages of a book before deciding to replace it on the shelf or give it more thought. I have observed customers in bookshops check the cover, the back cover, the flaps, and a page or two, essentially doing the same thing. Practically none of them looked at the Table of Contents and/or Index, which is what they should do, in my opinion.
- Worst News. Editors looking over query letters from authors will give each one from 7 to 12 seconds before making that same decision, according to Writer's Digest.
So now you know something about your audience and its attention span. In the next lesson, we'll start considering "What is Good Travel Writing," after all.
This is the eleventh in a series of "How to be a Travel Writer." The author, a contributing editor here and former editor-in-chief at the Fodor guidebook series, teaches at the Key West Travel Writing Workshop, which he founded in 1991, every January and February. Details at www.heritagehousemuseum.org.