Write for One Person

Tyler Cowen starts every podcast with a message to his audience: “This is the conversation I want to have, not the one you want to have.”

If they’re disappointed, so be it. Tyler wants to have wild and wacky conversations that reflect his interests, even if they repel the average listener. But by ignoring the wisdom of crowds, he’s attracted an ocean of like-minded super fans.

When I swim, I either like diving into a freshwater lake, boogie boarding on violent surf, or floating in an ultra-salty area like The Dead Sea. Like water, writing comes alive at the extremes. Avoid brackish prose that tries to be everything to everybody, even though it means that most people will be indifferent to what you publish. 

Depending on the article, you can either write for yourself or one other person. Thinking about thousands of people at once will drive you crazy because you won’t know what to focus on. Don’t let a stadium of perspectives paralyze you. Pick one obsessive person to write for, and let them be a proxy for the kind of reader you want to attract.

When I write for myself, I think about what I would’ve wanted to know six months ago. I focus on ideas that would’ve surprised me or saved me time. Since I’m an obsessive who appreciates depth, I include more detail than conventional wisdom would advise. But guess what? I don’t care. My writing is a protest against the superficial babble that passes for intellectual discourse and gives us all BuzzFeed Brain.

When I write for others, I start the essay with their name at the top of the page. Then, I describe them in detail: “Kevin will swallow information faster than a lion can eat its prey, but only if you keep him entertained. He’s a well-read startup founder whose appetite for rigorous thinking is balanced by an impatience for hollow ideas. So get to the damn point. Don’t let him drown in the deep end of background knowledge, even if it means he has to look something up on Wikipedia.”

The more you write for somebody with peculiar interests, the less you compete for their attention. I write for practitioners because they’re allergic to cliches and philosophers because their BS filters are more sensitive than an electric fence. Meeting the kinds of people you’d never meet in real life is the whole point of writing online, so escape the lukewarm middle and write for one obsessive person.


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