Know Your Audience: The Writer’s Golden Rule?

Well-known, more affluent writers than I am have their own ideas about what makes up “the golden rule(s)” of comedy, writing, and art at large.

*For the Internet’s best guesses at established “golden rules” on similar themes, see here  and here. Then, if you don’t totally agree with those folks, come back here, and get my take on things. It’s entertaining and at least as educational as any 10 things you’re likely to see on said Internet, today

I have my own hypothesis on what this “golden rule should be.” I, alone, shoulder the blame if said hypothesis is silliness. If you think it’s solid, share the snot out of it!

But in order to understand why I’m right and the others are wrong, it may be helpful to know some history about the actual golden rule and why it’s important:

Many years ago in a land called Israel…

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… there was a young rabbi with some street cred, who came to a bad end at the hands of some Romans…

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… but not before he said some quotable things, one of which became – you guessed it – “the golden rule.”

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What “the golden rule” is is not as important as what it does, because what it does is take the 613 laws and bylaws that orthodox Jews are supposed to follow and condenses them down to 1 rule.

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Well, 2, actually. But only 1 of those rules is known as “the golden rule.”

What does this have to do with writing? I’m glad you asked!

“Know your audience,” in my not-even-close-to humble opinion, is not the golden rule of writing, comedy, and all things artistic.

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It is the platinum rule of writing, comedy, and all things artistic…

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…because when you follow this one rule, all the other steps you take to please your audience should fall in line behind it.

Let me give you an example:

In my previous, non-writer-ish occupations, I encountered folks who were, shall we say, “not the wittiest joke in the book.” I actually had a job interview with one of these folks that went astonishingly like this:

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Based on the conversation thus far, I might guess that, at the very least, this fellow’s knowledge base differs from mine (if only in that that I’m pretty sure “punctuation” means something other than “being on time”).

Suppose I was nervous and wanted to endear myself to this man, my perspective employer, by breaking the ice with a joke. If I choose humor that takes a passing knowledge of Shakespeare, German, history, physics, or classic literature in order to understand it, whose fault is it, if he doesn’t get the joke?

It’s definitely my fault, and the awkwardness that ensues could have been avoided if I’d paid a little more attention to the social cues given me and used them to better know my audience.

Similarly, say you’re an author / illustrator who wants to entertain children. Even more than that, you want to give them a paper-and-ink work of art that is educationally significant. To do this, you’ve got your word count down / up to the mandatory amount, you’ve researched like crazy, you’ve hired the best editor in town, and you use the same distributor that every author of greatness since Hemingway has used… but, for inexplicable reasons, you think the guy whose story kids need to be reading is that of H. H. Holmes, Charles Manson, or the Marquis de Sade.

Agents and publishers might say they want something they’ve never seen before and think they mean it. And a little defiance of convention is sometimes just what the market needs. But especially as an debut author or a comic doing your time in Warm-up Act Hell, you’ll save yourself some pounding headaches and perhaps a few expensive errors if you yield to some long-standing traditions, not the least of which is… knowing your audience.




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