Tolkien's 5 Tips for Writing to an Audience

One of the most important things a writer must consider is the audience.  Who will read this massive tome we are constructing?  To what group of people are we directing our story?  J.R.R. Tolkien considered this in retrospect after The Hobbit had been on the shelves for a while.  He was asked the following questions by The New Statesman: "How far do you write with a specific audience in mind, i.e. how do you feel writing for children differs from writing for adult readers?  To what extent do you feel that writing for children satisfies a need in yourself, for example, by expressing a side of you repressed by ordinary life or by the exigencies of writing for adults?...Are you conscious of a didactic purpose, and if so, how do you construe it?" (p. 296-297).

Tolkien's answers are surprising:

1. Being Misunderstood - Tolkien writes: "...the desire to address children, as such, had nothing to do with the story as such in itself or the urge to write it.  But it had some unfortunate effects on the mode of expression and narrative method, which if I had not been pushed, I should have corrected" (p. 297).  Sometimes the audience misunderstands the intent of the author.  Tolkien never intended (in his heart) to write a story directed at children.  He was simply writing a story that had been brewing in his mind for several years.  The fact that he had children at the time had something to do with his form of diction in The Hobbit having the tone of a children's story was purely accident in his opinion.  Sometimes your work will be misunderstood, but being misunderstood is all part of the learning process of a writer.

2.  Adjust - Tolkien writes: "I had given a great deal more thought to the matter before beginning the composition of The Lord of the Rings; and that work was not specially addressed to children or to any other class of people.  But to any one who enjoyed a long exciting story that I myself naturally enjoy..."(p. 297) "I had been brought up to believe that there was a real and special connexion between children and fairy-stories.  Or rather to believe that this was a received opinion of my world and of publishers.  I doubted it, since it did not accord with my personal experience of my own taste, nor with my observation of children (notably my own).  But the convention was strong.  I think that The Hobbit can be seen to begin in what might be called a more 'whimsy' mode, and in places even more facetious, and move steadily to a more serious or significant, and more consistent, and historical...but I regret much of it all the same" (p. 298).  Once a novel is written, published, and read by a wide audience, it takes on a different shape than what the author may have intended it to be.  It is important for a writer to see their work through the eyes of their audience.  Sometimes, like Tolkien, it may make us see our work in a different light, possibly from a perspective that we did not originally think about when writing it.  Writers should use their audience's perception of their work to rethink their next book.  My first novel The Transgression Box was intended to be an allegory/satire of American Christianity.  Even though I tried to tell a good story (and apparently did according to reviews) in retrospect I felt that sometimes the "good story" was lost in the allegory.  Sometimes I tried too hard with some of the symbolism and didn't focus on just telling a good story.  My next book will remedy this and try to balance the "soapbox moments" with the action of good science fiction storytelling.

3.  Don't Change Interests.  Change the Diction - Tolkien writes: "I am not especially interested in children, and certainly not in writing for them: i.e. in addressing directly and expressly those who cannot understand adult language.  I write things that might be classified as fairy-stories not because I wish to address children... but because I wish to write this kind of story and no other... Since large numbers of adults seem to enjoy what I write - quite enough to make me happy - I have no need to escape to another and (possibly) less exigent audience" (p. 297).  Tolkien did not intend to write to children, and realized when he was to write The Lord of the Rings that his diction had to change.  There is a notable difference in the diction between the two works.  Tolkien changed the nature of the text without compromising the interests and messages he intended to express.  He simply wrote to a more mature audience the second time around.  If our work as writers is seen by an audience in a way we did not intend, then we must learn from this and adjust our diction.  I have a friend who wrote a Dr. Seuss poem about homeopathy.  No child will ever care about homeopathy and whether or not it is a viable scientific method for healing ills.  The intent of my friend's poem was written more for adults anyway, but at first reading one assumes that a Dr. Seuss poem is written for children.  Another thing to consider is that the average reader reads on a 6th-8th grade level (sadly).  If writers use a vocabulary greater than this, their work may be read by scholars, but not by a wide audience.

4.  Audiences are Diverse - Tolkien writes: "What are 'Children'?  Do you limit your inquiry, as may be supposed, to (North) European children?  Then in what ages between the cradle and the end of legal infancy?  To what grades of intelligence?  Or literary talent and perceptiveness?  Some intelligent children may have little of this.  Children's tastes and talents differ as widely as those of adults, as soon as they are old enough to be differentiated clearly, and therefore to be a target of anything that can bear the name of literature.  It would be useless to offer to many children of 14 or even of 12 the trash that is good enough for many respectable adults of twice or three times the age, but less gifts natural" (p. 298).  We may think that our audience might be "an adult audience" but what kind of adults?  from what ages?  from what ethnic background? from what cultural background?  These things should be carefully considered when choosing an audience.  Stephanie Meyer became extremely popular because she hit an untapped audience of girls between the ages of 13 and 18 combined with their mothers.  Her books became a way for mothers to connect with their daughters (sadly, and that is fodder for another post).  J.K. Rowling's books resonated with pre-teens, but her diction and subject matter changed as her audience became older as those pre-teens became adults.  It is important to do some research into what type of audience will best read our work as writers.  If the audience is too narrow, the work will have less hope in reaching the coveted best-seller list.

5.  Challenge the Audience - Tolkien writes: "Life is rather above the measure of us all (save for a very few perhaps).  We all need literature that is above our measure - though we may not have sufficient energy for it all the time.  But the energy of youth is usually greater.  Youth needs then less than adulthood or Age what is down to its (supposed) measure.  But even in Age I think we only are really moved by what is at least in some point or aspect above us, above our measure, at any rate before we have read it and 'taken it in'...But an hones word is an honest word, and its acquaintance can only be made by meeting it in a right context.  A good vocabulary is not acquired by reading books written according to some notion of the vocabulary of one's age group.  It comes from reading books above one" (p. 298-99).  It is important for an audience to be challenged.  Writers should sprinkle their text with vocabulary that is a little higher than the target reading level but not so much that it becomes overwhelming.  People learn new words through using context clues.  I do not teach vocabulary in my classroom by forcing students to make long boring list of words copied from the dictionary.  Readers learn new words because they see a word used in a sentence and by seeing how it is used, find the meaning of that word.  It is the same with complex concepts.  Rowling used more simplistic themes in her first Harry Potter novel, but in the end of the series was delving into more mature topics and themes.  It is important for writers to understand their role in the world is not just to entertain, but to educate and to make readers think about the human condition.  If we do nothing but entertain, we will be forgotten.

All quotations taken from:

Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. 1st ed. Massachusetts: George Allen & Unwin, 1981. Print.

More of "Tolkien's Tips":

Tolkien's Tips for Creating Complex Heroes

Tolkien's Tips for Creating Epic Heroes

Tolkien's 10 Tips for Writers