How Stephen King Helps Me Write for Church
I don't re-read many books. But there's one book I pull off my shelf at least once a year. The book is a bit tattered and full of pencil markings, and with each year I add a few more marks to its pages. That book is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King.
Did you say Stephen King?
I know, I know, King's novels aren't for everyone. Mention that you enjoy his work in a casual conversation, as I did with my fellow church staff recently, and you're likely to get some blank stares or even a few scoffs. Whether you're one of his Constant Readers or if the mere mention of his name gives you the creeps, you must admit that his sheer output and popularity are testaments to his mastery of the craft of writing. Woven throughout On Writing are King's sincere love of language and his witness to the power of words. More concretely, the book is full of clear, useful advice for all writers.
In his book, King offers a concept I now use often: the Ideal Reader. When he writes, he does so for a specific person. This is the person he wants to wow. King's Ideal Reader is his wife, Tabitha. Keeping your Ideal Reader in your mind as you write "will help you get outside yourself a little, to actually read your work in progress as an audience would while you're still working."
The Ideal Reader in Church Communications
In my work in church communications, I have to write a lot to a relatively large audience. Whether it's a congregational email, a Facebook post, or even a bulletin announcement, I'm typically casting a pretty wide net. In doing so, I often write too broadly. By trying to write for everyone, I end up writing for no one in particular.
So I started writing for some Ideal Readers. When I write an email to the congregation, I imagine that I am writing to two people personally. The first is a woman named Sarah (not her real name). She is married, and a mother of two small children. The entire family is active in the congregation. My other Ideal Reader is a man named Bill. He is an older adult who loves the church but is limited in his involvement during this stage in his life. When I write for the whole congregation, I imagine these two real people reading the message. I think about how they would understand and engage with the writing. If I can reach them, I will likely reach more.
This concept is not totally new. Advertisers put a lot of work into creating "customer profiles" or personas when developing a new marketing campaign. They list made-up attributes of their ideal customer for a client or business—complete with demographic information, descriptions of their likes and dislikes, maybe even what shows they watch or hobbies they enjoy. This work helps focus their campaign.
Writing for Real People
In church communications, we can do one better than advertisers. We're not writing to made-up amalgamations of demographic data points and interests. We're writing to real people who we see at coffee hour, who we invite into our homes, who we share communion with. When we forget that, we fall into bland, vague writing, and we fail to serve our readers. Remember, Stephen King's Ideal Reader is his actual wife, and my Ideal Readers are actual church members.
Now, the concept of the Ideal Reader is not an excuse to ignore different viewpoints or prioritize some groups of people over others. Rather, the concept of the Ideal Reader guides my writing and reminds me that I'm writing for real people. As you communicate within your congregation, take some time to think about the people reading your words. Perhaps the concept of the Ideal Reader will help you as it's helped me. This is a call to be more concrete, succinct, and specific. You'll likely learn the counter-intuitive truth that your writing can serve more people when you stop trying to appeal to the crowd.
Think this concept of an ideal reader can help in your church communications? Let me know in the comments.