Ever have watered-down lemonade? Even though it seems like everyone would enjoy something as innocuous as lemon-tinged water, it has been diluted to the point where no one would really like it, let alone pay for it. Watered-down lemonade is neither sweet nor tangy, enticing no palate.
Similarly, in the spirit of appealing to numerous audiences, some writers have a habit of watering down their prose. “It’s for academics and lay audiences!” they say. “Adults and children alike!” The result is that the academics overlook the publication as “not serious enough,” the lay audience ignores it as “too academic”…you get the point. Watered-down prose is insipid and uninspired, capturing no reader.
Now imagine that you knew exactly who you were targeting with your lemonade. You’ve decided to go after those who enjoy lemonade that’s on the sour side, with a sprig of mint. “Is that sweet lemonade?” a potential buyer asks hopefully. “No, sir,” you can say confidently. “This lemonade is not for you. Shirley is selling sweet lemonade a block over.”
The secret to not watering down your prose is to not dilute your audience in the first place. Instead of casting the net wide (women, ages 25–65), create an avatar of your ideal reader. Imagine, as Carol Shields suggested, telling your story directly into their ear. This ideal reader could be made up, or a real person, but capture them fully: name, occupation, age, where they live, enemies, favourite colour. Definitely know whether this reader prefers their lemonade sweet, or sour with mint. Hint: this ideal reader can be you.
Write for this audience of one, and you’ll reach an audience of many. Write for an audience of many, and you’ll reach no one.