Writing the Five Genii Way

Mind, Heart & Soul of writing

#8 – More than AP: Audience, Purpose (and Attitude)

Table of Contents

When I went to high school and, later, when I was a high school teacher, AP meant Advanced Placement. AP classes were rigorous, college-level courses for students who were interested and prepared and wanted credit that would transfer to college. In my high school, everyone wanted to be in the highest track (AP), and most teachers liked teaching AP in whatever subject they taught.

You may not think you’re ready for AP writing. I know this is only the eighth blog you’ve read, but you’re ready to think seriously about AUDIENCE and PURPOSE (and I’m going to throw in another “A” – ATTITUDE).


Up to this point, my blogs have focused on you, the writer. I suggested that you pay attention to the world around you (especially anomalies) in the first blog; that you keep what you’re writing always in your mind in the second blog; and that you determine the conditions you need to write in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth. We’ve moved from the first topic “Deciding What to Write” to the second, “Getting Started.”

Now, I’m going to switch to the reader. Of course, you can’t control the reader. Or can you? I think you can influence the reader through your writing. So, in a sense, this blog is about the reader, but it is also about you, the writer.

In the “old days,” teachers and professors who taught literature, thought of the relationship between the writer/author and the reader like this:

The Traditional Model of Reading

What the reader understood + what the teacher explained may lead to what the reader understands

The Traditional Model of Reading shows that what the writer had in mind and wrote about may not be exactly what the reader understands. Back in those days, the role of the teacher or professor was as mediator between what the author wrote and what the reader/student eventually understands.

After all, the teacher or professor has studied the writing (and the author and the times, etc.) and is ready to make the meaning clear to the student.

I listened closely when my teacher or professor discussed the themes and symbolism. I remember an “ah-hah” moment when I thought, “Now I get it. This book is about forgiveness, not revenge.” Sometimes I learned that something as ordinary as a vase was a symbol of something else. I didn’t know. . .until the professor told me so. I remember parroting the teacher’s wisdom on quizzes and test. As long as I wrote what the teacher or professor had told me about the theme or symbolism, I got a good grade.

The world of literature teaching and learning changed as I was studying to become a teacher. Thank goodness. The person who changed my thinking was Louise Rosenblatt and the people she learned from (including Margaret Mead, John Dewey, and William James) and taught. Her research focus was on how a person got meaning from reading. She examined the current belief that the meaning of a piece of writing resided in the words on the page. What intrigued her was how people got different meanings from the same words. The best known of her books, The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978), changed my mind (and my own reading, writing, and teaching) forever.

In the title of her book, the word “text” refers to what the author wrote. It becomes meaningful – a “poem” – when the reader interacts with the text, interpreting it according to experience, knowledge, beliefs, and feelings. Here are some key points from Rosenblatt’s theory:

  • There is no one meaning to a text; there are many meanings, according to the interactions the reader has with the text.
  • Although the meaning does not reside in the work itself, the reader has the responsibility for “close reading” the text, for example, accepting that the writer has consciously made choices with every word, sentence, paragraph.
  • Good readers must also pay attention to their responses to the text.
  • Good readers may also go outside the text itself – perhaps to read about the author, the time and place of the piece, and what others (such as a critic, teacher, or professor) have said about it.
  • No one meaning – beyond what the writer meant – is entirely accurate.
  • Some readers come closer than others to the writer’s meaning because they closely read the piece, checked their own responses to the text, and consulted outside resources to further advance their understanding and appreciation of what they read.
  • No one reader’s interpretation is entirely subjective if the reader has read closely enough to cite parts of the text as proof of interpretation, bolstered perhaps by personal knowledge, experiences, beliefs, and feelings; and by research and attention to what others have said about the piece.
  • Reading is, therefore, active and interactive. It is neither passive nor dependent on someone else’s interpretation.

This theory has sometimes referred to as transactional or reader-response theory. It looks like this:

Transactional model of reading

The Transactional Model of Reading

I mentioned that writers cannot control the meaning readers derive from their text, but I hinted that perhaps they can, especially if they write according to the transactional model.

Note: Increasingly, writers refer to their readers as the audience for their writing. Its Latin root “aud” refers to hearing, so it is generally associated with a group of listeners. The word expanded to include spectators, as well, and now refers to anyone who “receives” a work created by someone else: music; a play, movie, TV show, or video; commercials or ads; news and commentary; and videogames. Writers may expect their audiences to read or listen to what they have written, but they need to understand that their readers may instead watch and listen to a book (story, article, poem, etc.) as a movie, TV show, play, concert, or videogame in which they become a player.

Some Thoughts About Your Reader/Audience

As usual, authors have different opinions about writing for an audience, but very few would advise disregarding whoever will read what you’ve written. Brenda Ueland admired Tolstoy and his description of the effect of an audience on his writing: “Art is affection. The artist has a feeling and he expresses it and at once this feeling infects other people and they have it too. And the infection must be immediate or it isn’t art.” (116)

She used Tolstoy’s argument to improve her own writing: “This helped me because it showed me there is no sense in writing anything I don’t feel; or working up a lot of bogus feelings, because nobody will be one bit impressed or affected.” (120)



In fact, it’s at least as important to consider audience when writing nonfiction as fiction, perhaps even more important. Let’s say you are writing a magazine article. You want to persuade your reader to pursue a particular enterprise. How in the world will you be able to be persuasive if you don’t KNOW something about the person you are trying to persuade? Not the actual person, but others who are close to actual.

Your Ideal Reader (IR)

Stephen King noted, “Someone – I can’t remember who, for the life of me – once wrote that all novels are really letters aimed at one person. As it happens, I believe this. I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, ‘I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part.” (215)

King suggested that writers “call that one person you write for Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time: in the flesh once you open the door and let the world back in to shine on the bubble of your dream, in spirit during the sometimes troubling and often exhilarating days of the first draft, when the door is closed. And you know what? You’ll find yourself bending the story even before Idea Reader glimpses so much as the first sentence. I.R. will help you get outside yourself a little, to actually read your work in progress as an audience would while you’re still working. This is perhaps the best way of all to make sure you stick to story, a way of playing to the audience even when there’s no audience there and you’re totally in charge.” (291)

Characteristics of an IR:

Some characteristics of an IR are obvious from the start. For example, I knew I was going to write a book about

  • China between two world wars;
  • A young woman who felt constricted by Victorian code that governed women’s lives;
  • A young woman who did not want to be supported by or dependent on a man for her livelihood;
  • AudienceA young woman who did not want her purpose in life to be defined by taking care of a husband (or employer) and doing what she considers mundane (housekeeping, clerking, cooking, raising children, secretarial work, ranching);
  • A young woman who felt limited by the opportunities available to her in rural west Texas in the early 1900s;
  • A young woman who was passionate about dedicating her life to a worthwhile purpose.

Suspecting that the IR for my book might be interested in history and geography, particularly in the Orient; warfare between 1850 and 1950; dry-land farming and ranching; rural life in the United States; the status of women in the early 1900s; early feminism; and philanthropy, I looked for ways that naturally touched on those topics.

Check out these fictional book titles. What obvious characteristics might their authors have had in mind as they wrote these books?

Secret of the Beheaded Poet
The Face of the Gremlin
Rich and Ready
The Whispering Hand
Sign of Broken Things

Physical image of IR
Image by rawpixel.com on Freepik

Sometimes authors decide to create a physical image of their IR. I did so once, for the principal of a school. I didn’t set out to form an image of her, but – as I was looking through a magazine – I found a drawing that introduced itself (metaphorically speaking) to me as Mrs. X, the principal. She stood tall and thin, like a nail in a piece of board. Her shiny bronze hair was a cap that curved at the ends so that it bent under in back and into her cheekbones. She was not menacing despite her height and upright posture, perhaps because her smile was wide (as the saying goes, almost “ear to ear”) and open, showing both top and bottom teeth. Also, she held her arms as if opening them to someone else: in front of her with the palms up. I could imagine a teary-eyed kindergartner coming towards her, needing a hug. She stood feet apart, knees bent as if ready to lift up that five-year-old.

I kept looking at that picture, noticing other things about this woman, things that I hoped would cause me to turn the page. Somehow, I wasn’t sure I wanted a physical image of my IR. But she continued to win me over with a simple A-line moss green dress that fit perfectly and draped beautifully, a thin gold necklace, one of her gold earrings shining through her hair, and a gold watch. Her shoes were – okay, I admit it! – sensible. Flats or low heels, beige.

I cut out that picture and put it above my desk. Sometimes, I’d look up at her and ask, “So, Mrs. X, how would you handle this situation?” She always had an answer.

Let’s say you were taking a walk on a crowded sidewalk or flipping through a magazine in an office. How would you recognize your Ideal Reader? Consider any of the following characteristics, based on sight only:

Body shape
characteristicsStance and body position (side-facing, front; turned) Hair type, color, and style
Face: Eyebrows; eye shape and color; nose; ears; mouth; cheek bones; chin; neck
Position of arms and legs
Clothing and accessories, including jewelry

You may not have a chance to hear your IR talk, but if you did, what would this person sound like? How would this person laugh? Cry?

You might want to think about the character of your IR. Here are some aspects of character you might consider:



Lived Values/Beliefs

Of course, these are just a few aspects of character – and all on the positive side. You may recognize that your IR may have some negative aspects of character, too.

Finally, experiment with your own book. Do a free write on an obvious or less-obvious characteristic you believe your Ideal Reader might have. (See Blog 7, Your First Word Is Your Last Word on how to do a Free Write.) Here’s my example:

I hoped the reader of Through the Five Genie Gate would be warm-hearted. I wanted this reader to see not only what my major characters did because they had to do these things, but also what the Japanese did prior to the official start of WW II and what the Chinese did to eke out a living. I wanted to write these details in such a way that my audience would accept them with understanding and compassion. I tried to be matter of fact when I wrote about atrocities and even tried to present both sides, when possible. I downplayed some of the goriest details or referenced them in general. Someone who wrote the tale for a more dispassionate or cynical audience might have played up what I downplayed.


Writing for an audience does NOT mean you have a responsibility for representing one or more of those readers in your essay, book, story, or poem. I did not endow the principal in my book with copper-colored hair that curled just so. I did not force her to be compassionate, the kind who would give hugs to bawling, snotty-nosed kids. I let her be what she became as I wrote. Many writers claim to be surprised by their characters. I let the principal surprise me.

Do not dwell overmuch on trying to psych out your reader. It’s probably OK to understand that your Ideal Reader might be ambitious, forgiving, and proud, for example, but do not concentrate on writing for people who are one or the other, or all three. Let your IR sit quietly beside you as you write, but do not concentrate on writing a character to match your IR: forgiving, proud, or one with conflicting psyches, unless you are writing what you would write naturally anyway.

Taking the strategy of writing for your audience too far may result in your losing your own voice or making your writing inaccessible to other readers (those who don’t have the characteristics you expected). Also, according to Dame Hilary Mantel: “Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.”

So, be aware – always – that you do have an audience, that there are readers out there who are going to devour your book, getting all they can out of it and – perhaps – changing their own lives accordingly. You are writing for someone, probably for a lot of someones.


Given my Warning! above, you may be feeling a little skittish about coming up with a purpose you hope to accomplish with your IR. However, it’s important for you to know your own purposes in writing and have in mind why (or for what worthy purposes) your audience might read what you have written. Let’s call the reasons people read your book and others Worthy Purposes (WPs). Your IR might leak a WP. You might hear a whispered WP: “Remember your IRs are reading to feel better about their situation.”

The twin pillars of good writing, Audience and PurposeMany authors and teachers of writing make audience and purpose the pillars of good writing. Good writers know their audience. Good writers know their purpose in writing for that audience. It becomes part of the writer’s responsibility, then, to consider audience and purpose.

Another Warning! CONSIDERING audience and purpose does not mean that writers DEVOTE themselves to accomplishing readers’ purposes. The other part of the writer’s responsibility, of course, is to achieve their own purposes.

Ordinary Purposes for Reading

Why do people read? Take a look at the three lists below. What purposes catch your attention, perhaps because they explain why you read? What purposes fit your own purposes for writing?

Here are some of the more obvious reasons people read:

  1. They are attracted by the title and/or cover;
  2. They have heard of the author or have read something they liked by the same author (WOULDN’T THIS BE NICE??!!);
  3. The subject sounds interesting to them;
  4. A friend has recommended it;
  5. A review has raved about it (or, sometimes, a reviewer has panned it so badly that people are reading to see what’s so bad about it).

In 2012, the Pew Charitable Trust conducted research about why people liked to read. They surveyed people who had read a book in the last 12 months, and here’s what they found:

  • What is your intention for reading?“26% of those who a read a book in the past 12 months said that what they enjoyed most was learning, gaining knowledge, and discovering information.
  • “15% cited the pleasures of escaping reality, becoming immersed in another world, and the enjoyment they got from using their imaginations.
  • “12% said they liked the entertainment value of reading, the drama of good stories, the suspense of watching a good plot unfold.
  • “12% said they enjoyed relaxing while reading and having quiet time.
  • “6% liked the variety of topics they could access via reading and how they could find books that particularly interested them.
    The joy of reading
  • “4% said they enjoy finding spiritual enrichment through reading and expanding their worldview.
  • “3% said they like being mentally challenged by books.
  • “2% cited the physical properties of books – their feel and smell – as a primary pleasure.


“In their own words, respondents were eloquent and touching. One respondent noted: ‘I am an English teacher, so I read to save my sanity from grading essays.’”


Finally, here’s another – but brief – list of reasons people read:

  • To reduce stress
  • To exercise the brain
  • To improve literacy
  • To inspire success
  • To make them smarter
  • To strengthen their world view and convictions
  • To gain vocabulary
  • To make them more empathetic
  • To improve sleep
  • To promote wellness
  • To expand their imagination
  • To broaden their horizons
  • To help them concentrate
  • To help them alleviate the symptoms of depression
  • To improve memory
  • To learn about additional titles or types of reading
  • To live longer
  • To be happier (especially by reading fiction)


Now, think about your own writing. Which purposes do you think you serve? Which would you like to serve? Get as specific as you can: “How am I helping people escape reality? “How am I helping people strengthen their world view?” or “How am I helping people increase their vocabulary?”

Purposes I Imagined for Readers of My Book

I doubted that people would choose to read my eighth book, Through the Five Genii Gate, because they had heard of me. My other books were about education. I hope the title of my eighth book will intrigue them and, perhaps, the cover. They may read my book because it sounds interesting. Eventually, I hope people will read it because others (including reviewers) have recommended it.

Otherwise, I imagine readers might choose Five Genii Gate, because they want to

  • Learn and discover;
  • Gain knowledge and understanding;
  • Immerse themselves in another world;
  • Get away from their everyday lives;
  • Broaden their world view;
  • Engage in the suspense of a story;
  • Read about characters who may be like them;
  • Read about characters who may be different from them;
  • Become more empathetic;


Even more specifically, readers of my book might have purposes that include knowing, understanding, and caring about:

  • The history of China between two wars.
  • The lives of people in rural American communities in the early 1880s to the early 1930s.
  • The lives of women in the late 1880s to the early 1930s.
  • The traditional relationships in a marriage, and variations on those traditions.
  • The constrictions on women at the time.
  • How (and why) people develop humanitarian goals.
  • How people achieve goals, despite multiple challenges.
  • How people develop independence and self-direction.
  • How people persevere.


You’ll never know all the reasons readers have for reading something you’ve written. Even if you – somehow – knew what individuals wanted to accomplish as a reader, you could never accomplish all of them. Furthermore, you probably wouldn’t want to know all those reasons.

Concentrate on letting your concept of the reader/audience and their purposes for reading guide – but not corral – you as you generate your original work.

The Connections Between Purposes for Reading and Writing

Believe it or not, your own purposes for writing can match your readers’ purposes for reading your writing.

The American writer Julia Cameron, who wrote The Artist’s Way and The Right to Write, devoted much of the latter book to purposes for writing. As you study her thoughts in the far-left column below, think about whether what she says is true for you as a writer, too. And do the purposes she describes have a corollary in why readers read? The chart may help you think through these connections. I’ve done the first two as I see them (feel free to differ).

Why Julia Writes How Her Purpose
Applies to You
How Readers’ Purposes
Are Similar
“Why should we write? We should write because it is human nature to write. Writing claims our world. It makes it directly and specifically our own.” (xvi) I write because it is my nature to write; it’s how I make sense of my world. Perhaps readers read because it is how they “claim [their] world. . . [and make] it direction and specifically [their] own.
“We should write because writing brings clarity and passion to the act of living.” (xvi) I write because putting words around something (an idea, an event, a person, a question, anything) helps me clarify what I am experiencing. I’ve already experienced enough passion about the “act of living” to be forced to write. Readers read to try to understand something that is confusing or challenging them. Or, perhaps, to substantiate something they’ve been feeling. Maybe to collect contradictions that neutralize what they’ve been feeling.
“We should write because writing is good for the soul.” (xvi)
“We should write because writing yields us a body of work, a felt path through the world we live in.” (xvi)
“Writing both gives continuity and creates a sense of continuity. Writing both gives change and creates an awareness of change.” (128)
“. . . my own experience has taught me that my ‘right to write’ is what gives me the many other rights I now insist on: respect for my work, respect for me as a person, relationships involving give as well as take.” (95)
“Writing tells us that we are not powerless. Writing tells us that we have choices. Writing tells us what those choices are. Writing tells us when we are shirking responsibility. Writing tells us when we are overburdened.” (95)
“Writing raises questions ‘I’ hadn’t thought of. Writing offers ‘me’ a different perspective, a different and more engaging way to look at things.” (28)
“The drive to write is a primary human instinct: the drive to name, order, and in a sense control our experience. The drive to write, that primal glee we felt as children when we learned the letters that formed our name and then the words that formed our world, is drive that has been buried in our frantic, electrical, [electronic] age.” (33)
Coalescence of Reasons

Here are two other writers’ other purposes for writing and reading. Think about their ideas as you did with Julia Campbell’s ideas. Do you have similar purposes for writing? Do you think there are parallel reasons for reading?

Brenda Ueland (Minnesota writer best known for If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit):

“Gradually by writing you will learn more and more to be free, to say all you think; and at the same time, you will learn never to lie to yourself, never to pretend and attitudinize. But only by writing and by long, patient, serious work will you find your true self.” (111)

“But remember always that the true self is never a fixed thing. You can never say: ‘Good. Today I find at last what I am really like: [the] splendid type!’ You cannot say that because the true self is always in motion like music, a river of life, changing, moving, failing, suffering, learning, shining. That is why you must freely and recklessly make new mistakes – in writing or in life – and do not fret about them but pass on and write more.” (112)

Anne Lamott (American novelist and non-fiction writer):

“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life as it lurches by and tramps around.” (xii)


Column with attitudeI have always learned that A & P matter most in terms of thinking about their readers: Audience and Purpose. Writers do well to think about A & P but should not let A & P rule their writing. I have added another quality that writers should think about as they write but not let it dictate what they write. That quality is Attitude. Let it be the third pillar.

This paragraph from the New York Times front page (Sunday, November 12) will give you a good idea about what I mean when I say that attitude is important for writers to consider:

At 100, Vegemite Is Still Beloved by Australians. And Baffling to Everyone Else
By Natasha Frost

. . . .
Glinting glass jars, each filled with a swirl of semi-molten Vegemite, quiver as they clink along metal rollers on the assembly line before being bunched into squadrons of 12 and sent out into the world.
. . . .

How do you think Ms. Frost felt about Vegemite? How would you characterize her attitude towards it?

You probably answered “negative” or, more specifically, you can imagine her retching, gagging, or heaving as she wrote. This attitude comes through in a few words or phrases (with my own reactions to those words in parentheses):

Glinting (sharp, shards, steel)
Semi-molten (volcanoes, hot, fiery, lava, not something I’d like to swallow)
Quiver (reminds me of Jello, jiggling in a rather unseemly way; or something that holds arrows)
Clink (an unpleasant sound, jangling, discordant)
Bunched (a rather careless action, crowded)
Squadrons (war, destruction, marching in unison, raising weapons; or clusters of airplanes going to war)
Sent out (gotten rid of, banished)

What do you think Ms. Frost’s attitude was towards vegemite? Did she, perhaps, want the reader to feel the same thing?

The paragraph can be easily altered to be more positive and, perhaps, to lead the reader to be more positive about Vegemite:

. . . .
Lustrous glass jars, each filled with a swirl of silky Vegemite, gently vibrate as they glide along metal rollers on the assembly line before being welcomed into a community of 11 other jars and presented to families hungry for the delectation.
. . . .

I admit it; my example is a bit over the top. . .but it’s to illustrate the point. Most writers have some sort of attitude towards the subjects they write about – both major and trivial subjects. It’s possible to imagine a reader – who hasn’t tasted Vegemite – swayed by the writer’s attitude.

If you have tasted Vegemite – as I have – you might read the original paragraph or my version with a different attitude, one that can be swayed by the writer’s words, or not. It’s worth a “bird-walk” to describe my first experience with Vegemite.

VegemiteI was on a plane bound for New Zealand. Sitting in a budget seat way in the back of the plane, I could hear exuberant voices from first class and soon a troop of soccer players who had won a match in the States marched through the back offering chocolate. Chocolate! Who wouldn’t want chocolate during a long flight? I looked up in the semi-darkness (lights dimmed as if the crew imagined we would sleep) to see a handsome young man offer me a spoonful of chocolate. Who could resist? I couldn’t and greedily lapped up the brown stuff in the spoon. . . and immediately spit it out into a napkin left-over from an earlier snack. It was a hunk of the most awful tasting sour, salty, and spicy gelatinous rot I had ever tasted. Chocolate, indeed!

The soccer player announced in a voice sure to wake anyone who was still sleeping, “She likes it!” The rest of the soccer players gathered at my row and chorused, “She likes it!”

“No, I don’t,” I sputtered, some of the stuff still coating my mouth, teeth, and tongue. I badly needed a drink of water. “What was it?”

And that’s when I learned about Vegemite. The words Ms. Frost used in her NYT’s article demonstrated her attitude about what residents of Melbourne have called Australia’s “intangible cultural heritage.” No way. Not even the upbeat words I substituted for Ms. Frost’s words would be sufficient to change my attitude.

However, sometimes the attitude an author expresses through word choice and sentence structure can be enough to change a reader’s attitude.