Just because everyone can write, doesn’t mean that everyone will be read. How to build readership in 2020?
“Every stylistic choice may deepen or narrow the readership,” the author Elizabeth McCracken said in a recent discussion of Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees. In that book, Dillard seems to take great joy in her stylistic choices. The novel switches from one perspective to another. Leaps forward and backward in time. Sometimes it is unclear who is speaking or thinking. The plot is not a happy one. She uses jarring, unfamiliar words. Abrupt sentences. And yes, I imagine these choices narrowed the readership willing to stick it out to the end, but they also deepened my interest, convinced me that Dillard was taking me somewhere interesting.
Dillard and McCracken were not talking about writing blogs or serial election anxiety memoirs, or whatever this series is. Novels are their concern. But the questions of who you’re writing for, how to get them to stick around, and how to find more readers, are always nearby for a writer.
Who am I writing this series for? Who are you, reader? How do I deepen your readership and find more of you?
Most writing on the internet takes fewer risks than a master novelist would take in the warm safety between two covers. Internet writing tends to follow predictable formulas. It is optimized for Google, for systems that assume every webpage is tied to a merchant, a revenue-seeking publisher, a home for Google’s ad network. A shallow and wide readership likely to click away at any moment.
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In the mid-2000s, I had a side job writing about documentary film for About.com. It didn’t pay much, but it was my first chance to get paid something to write. And to write about a topic I was interested in. My pay was not based on expertise or the quality of my writing (though I had a kind and supportive editor). It was based on readership. As long as more people were viewing pages I’d written (and loading the ads), my meager pay would be a little higher each month.
“There’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”Joan Didion, Why I Write
I learned many writing tricks when I wrote for that content mill. But, most of them did not help me impose my sensibility or find my way in to a reader’s most private space. I wrote a few 2,000-word essays analyzing the social issues discussed in new films, but these are not what drove page views and paychecks. Fellow film bloggers noticed them, and my relationships with these other writers were more meaningful in the end than the $700 or $800 per month I was lucky to get. But my stylistic choices were unimportant to the real project of that website. Key search engine phrases placed in headlines and throughout the text are what built the readership that mattered to the accountants.
How do you build readership? Top box office documentaries. Eight documentaries about Vietnam. Twenty moving holocaust documentaries. Who is Roger in Michael Moore Flint Movie? Ten surprising Werner Herzog stories. German director with voice accent Grizzly Man.
“It’s very easy as a writer to make the mistake of thinking that you’re writing your book so that the world will know who you are when the real role of the writer is to help the reader know who he or she is.”Steve Almond
How to build readership in 2020? Almond’s advice makes sense for me to keep in mind as these posts take on more elements of memoir. If the writing is helpful to the reader, it is on the right track. Whether to go down the road of clean and formulaic search-engine friendly writing, or use a more playful style at the risk of discovering who the true fans are is a question I expect I’ll be balancing for the next 81 days.