How to Write Like You Talk to Your Friends

In a blog post from 2011, Seth Godin famously pointed out: ‘No one ever gets talker’s block.’ He goes on to argue that writer’s block should be equally uncommon because we shouldn’t be any more afraid of making mistakes in writing than we are in speech.

While I disagree with his suggestion that we should all write badly in public until we learn to write better (instead, write badly and then fix it before hitting publish!), he’s right about how easy most of us find it to talk about what we do.

Why is writing harder than talking?

When you compare writing and talking you find a lot of similarities. Both use language to communicate ideas and feelings to other humans. One of the big differences is our sense of the audience.

When you’re talking to a friend or even a new acquaintance at a networking event, you know who’s listening. But when you write a blog post, it just sits on your website. You don’t know for sure who’s reading it.

This uncertainty makes writing harder. Yet we all know that as readers, we prefer to read something that feels like the author is writing or speaking directly to us.

I don’t think it helps for writing coaches to keep telling their clients to write the way they speak. It’s not quite that simple.

How can you make it easier?

You could try finding a dictation app that is reasonably accurate and speak your posts into that. For some writers, this works brilliantly. For others, and I’m among them, it’s even weirder to talk to a machine.

I find it helpful to keep my ideal reader in mind. While I hope lots of people read my blog posts, I write them to one, imaginary, person.

If you’re thinking this sounds an awful lot like your ideal client avatar (ICA), it is; but it’s also more than that. When marketing people ask you to develop your ICA, you list her desires, her pain points, and some demographic details.

I’ve never come away from an ICA development session feeling like I really know my client. To fix this problem, I’ve applied what I know about literature – particularly about characterisation.

Characterisation

Characterisation is the construction of a fictional character. So, if you approach developing your understanding of your ideal reader the same way a novelist would approach the development of a character, you’ll end up with an ideal reader that feels more real and relatable than any ICA.

To do this, you need to go further than the ICA development exercises you’re used to. In addition to asking yourself what your ideal reader wants, what she fears, and what solutions she needs from you, you need to figure out who she is.

How you go about doing this depends on your preferences and personality. You could paste pictures of her living and working environments, food, clothes, friends, and family into a Word document or pin them in a private board on Pinterest. If you prefer words to images, you could also describe where and how she lives, works, and so on. All of these things are part of the setting in which she lives.

Once you have the setting figured out, you need to understand her feelings and personality. Start with a simple exercise of making a few lists. What does she read, watch, and listen to (music and podcasts)? Then take this further and spend some time writing about questions like these:

  • Did she vote in the last election? If so, for whom?
  • Does she practice a religion? Which one/if not, why not?
  • How does she feel about major political issues? – Brexit, Trump’s second impeachment, …
  • How does she feel about major social justice issues? – Black Lives Matter, Women’s rights, Trans rights, …
  • How does she feel about herself? Is she happy with her body? Does she see herself as smart and capable, or is she always worried she’s not good enough?
  • How does she feel about her relationships?
  • How did she get to where she is now? What obstacles has she overcome? What are her achievements?
  • What was her childhood like? How does she now feel about the people who were around when she was growing up?

Test it

Now that you’ve got a better understanding of your ideal reader, try writing a letter to her about your latest offer. Is it easier to find the words? Keep working on it – as your relationship with your ideal reader develops, it will get easier to write to her.

If you need some help with this, join my free Facebook group – we’re a supportive bunch.

Who is your ideal reader?

Why do you need to identify her (or him or them)?

If you know who your ideal reader is, it will be easier to write your book. Writing to a person is always easier than writing to an ‘audience’. Also, knowing some specifics about your reader will help you decide what to include and what to leave out.

For example, if your book is about coping with a chronic condition like type-1 diabetes, how you discuss the topic will change depending on the audience. A book for a newly diagnosed child will be very different in tone and scope to one for that child’s parent, an adult living with diabetes, or a health professional working with diabetes patients.

Nevertheless, books for these four very different audiences will have some similarities. It’s likely they’ll all discuss controlling blood sugar through diet and exercise, as well as managing the condition through medication. The differences will be in how these topics are addressed – are they explained in terms appropriate to an eight-year-old or a hospital consultant?

Returning to your ideal reader, you need to think about what she wants and needs from your book. To that end, consider questions like the following:

  • Does she know next to nothing about your field, or is she a fellow practitioner?
  • How is she likely to use your book? Is it an instruction manual she can use for reference, or does she need to read the whole thing? Or is it somewhere in between? (My book There’s a Book in Every Expert (May 2020) is in between; it’s detailed enough to serve as an introductory text, but the chapter titles and subheadings make it easy to find particular topics.)
  • Is your book likely to be a complement to other books she has on your topic? Or is it the only one in the field? (If it’s the latter, is it really? Check a good search engine to be sure.)

As you can see just from these questions, identifying your ideal reader goes a long way towards helping you decide on the scope, content, and tone of your book.

If you’re producing an instruction manual for a fellow practitioner, she likely already has a good set of reference works in your field, so your book would need to be a user-friendly reminder of how to do particular things. By ‘user friendly’, I mean that it would need to be organised in a way that makes finding particular sections easy. If she has to read (or reread) 100 pages to find the answer to a question, she’s going to get irritated.

However, if you’re writing an introductory book for someone new to the field, you’ll need to be more comprehensive. This will mean taking the time to define terms specialists would take for granted, and it will probably mean including plenty of narrative examples.

Think back to our hypothetical book on diabetes; a consultant does not need (or want) you to discuss how insulin controls blood sugar, but an eight-year-old child has likely never thought about sugar in any form except sweets and doesn’t know what insulin is.

Now that you’re convinced you need to identify your ideal reader, how do you do it?

How do you identify her?

You’ve likely come across business development exercises on identifying your ideal paying client (if you haven’t check out Grow Your Tribe by Lor Bradley). Your ideal reader has a lot in common with your ideal client, but the groups are not necessarily identical.

For starters, your ideal client has to be able to afford your course or hourly rate – this is likely a much bigger financial commitment than the price of a book.

This is not to say that only those who can’t afford your primary coaching or healing services will buy your book. Your readers may be, or may become, your clients. But your readers don’t have to be as committed to working with you when they purchase your book as your clients do when they purchase a coaching package or course.

So, your ideal reader will be interested in learning what it’s like to work with you. Your current clients likely share this interest, but they may or may not feel the need to buy and read your book.

As in the exercises you’ve probably done on identifying your ideal client (sometimes called customer avatar), you need to think about who she is and answer questions like the following:

  • How old is she?
  • Does she have a family?
  • What does she do for a living?
  • What are her interests?
  • Where does she hang out on social media?
  • Where does she hang out in real life?
  • What does she do for fun?
  • What are her dreams?
  • What are her fears?
  • What does she look like?
  • What is her name?

Write your answers down. If you’re artistic, draw a picture of her or make a collage or vision board that represents her personality and interests.

However you choose to document your idea of your ideal reader, keep it to hand. When you start writing your book it will be easier to write to a person, than to write to a faceless reader.

What does writing to a particular reader look like?

It looks exactly like this post. Since it’s really clunky (and irritating) to write about how anyone could write anything, I’ve focused this post on helping writers who are writing books for women.

Does this mean it’s not useful to any other sort of writer? No. What it means is that having an ideal reader in mind allowed me to make this post suitably focused.

If you’re struggling to identify your ideal reader, ask for help in the Entrepreneurs’ Writing Club.