Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Keeping Your Audience in Mind, Just Like Darwin Did

We authors write about what we're interested in and want to learn more about. We write to make a point or to share a passion. We write for ourselves, for the child inside of us. But that doesn't mean we don't have our audience in mind as we research and write our books. When I write a book, I write for the child inside me who is the age of my intended audience. I also always keep in mind the adults who will be reading my book to a young child, or handing my book to an older child or teenager. Writing is, after all, communication. And you want to make sure you are communicating in such a way that your reader will listen, absorb, learn, and perhaps even change.

When Charles Darwin was working on his great book, The Origin of Species, whose 150th anniversary is next week, November 24, he had his audience in mind at all times--which made him hold off on publishing for decades. He knew that his theory of evolution by natural selection was going to rock the English religious boat, and he was not someone who wanted to rock any boats at all (least of all one he was on--prone to seasickness as he was). But he had an idea he believed in and wanted to share. So he did two things when he wrote the book: He worked very hard to make his argument airtight. And he wrote it in a tone that would not offend. Because not only did he have his audience in mind at all times, he had the perfect representative of a good part of his audience right there on the sofa next to him. His wife Emma.

Emma Wedgwood Darwin was extremely intelligent and well-read, and she was also religious. She was just the reader who might have trouble going down the path with Charles. He knew that if he could make his argument airtight enough, Emma (and the audience she represented) just might be able to set aside her reservations about the religious implications. And if he wrote his book the way he spoke--respectfully and politely, with his audience's feelings in mind--perhaps he would not offend. If you look at The Origin of Species I think you will see what I mean. It is a beautifully-written book, well-argued, polite, and intimate in a way. You feel as if he's talking to you. He even has a chapter called "Difficulties with the Theory" stemming from Emma's questions after reading an early draft. "A great assumption!" she wrote in the margins next to his description of the development of the eye.

I wrote CHARLES AND EMMA for the tween/teen that I was, and still am inside. Back when I was just realizing there was a world outside of my small one, I wanted desperately to read about people and their life stories. I felt sure I could find answers in this way. I was obsessed with the big questions of religion and death and love and meaning. I still am. I believe most children of a certain age are also. And I think many adults as well. Like Charles, I also did not want to offend; but I wanted to tell the truth. I hope I struck that balance.

When I write my books for younger kids, like HONEYBEES, for example, I write for my younger self, or for that third grade boy in the second row in my assembly who needs me to grab his attention. The one who will perk up when he hears how a honeybee passes the nectar she has gathered to the bee who will store it in the beehive. She regurgitates it into the other bee's mouth! Boy did I have my audience in mind when I shrieked upon reading that fact. O.K., I thought it was exceedingly cool and gross (in a good way), too.

(By the way, as I finish this post I am in Japan, here for the Kyoto Prize festivities. But since we can write these ahead of time, when this posts, I will be in the middle of the National Book Award festivities. I had incredible jet lag coming to Japan a few days ago, I can only pray it is not the same going home. I would hate to sleep through it all.)


kathleen duey said...

I cannot wait to read your book. What an interesting sensibility you bring to it. Intimate. Darwin's book IS intimate, but I never thought about it that way. Thanks!

I hope your jet lag isn't too profound...don't nap. Get on local time ASAP!! I know you will enjoy every second of the NBA events.

Abbi Glines said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your post. I can not agree more. So many times we get lost in our outlook that we forget to target the reader.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Well said! Children's non-fiction is too often overlooked, and too much of what's out there forgets to speak to YOUNG readers. Your book sounds delightful! :)

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Oh, my gosh! I just realized the first post here is from Kathleen Duey - as in THE Kathleen Duey! Wow! I'm feeling a little star-struck at the moment (and a little jealous). Wow...so cool. :)

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