Author, Audience and Parts of Speech

by Sherri Spelic (@edifiedlistener) Educator, Coach and Facilitator at home on the edge of the Alps in Vienna, Austria. I blog at https://edifiedlistener.wordpress.com/ and teach elementary physical education at a PK-12 international school by day. (Sherri’s #AltCV)


flickr photo Captive Audience shared by Singing With Light under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

For much of October I have been mentally wringing my hands over exactly how I want to contribute to Digital Writing Month, especially as a featured contributor. I gladly accepted the invitation to be a part and was flattered to be included among a fascinating cross section of participating contributors. And I kept asking myself – what do I have to share? What’s my angle? What’s important to me? What matters? And going a level deeper – what’s at stake?

Let me start here. I write regularly in public online spaces. I blog, I tweet, I comment. In fact, if I google my name, I get 4 pages worth of results which refer almost exclusively to one of those acts. So foremost in the digital warehouse of frequently accessed data points related to my name, writing pops up as if it were all that I do. So if Google’s main clues suggest “Sherri Spelic writes,” then that must make it so, right? Hmmm…

I realized only very recently that I want to talk about audience here. Because when I write, even when I say I don’t think much about who is going to read whatever I put out there, of course that’s a lie. I often consider for whom my words are intended. I care about reaching certain individuals and groups with my message. This thinking shapes, too, where I choose to publish – on my own blog or on a public platform like Medium.

Digital writing – in my understanding, the act of creating texts or other products through digital tools which are designed to be shared with readers via digital means- diverges significantly from the private hand-written journaling I did for years. From my laptop and occasionally from my tablet I draft texts which I primarily publish immediately. And when I say publish it means that I post it on my blog which triggers a least two separate tweets and sends out about 100 e-mails to subscribers of my blog. If I choose to publish on Medium I can either submit it for review to the editors of a specific publication (like Synapse) or I can post it independently. In both cases, these texts are out there for anyone and everyone with reasonably free internet access to see, read, and also ignore.

But here’s the thing: that “out there” business can be misleading. Just because anyone could find my beautifully crafted reflection on ‘the joy of whatever’ does not mean that many, or necessarily anyone will. We kind of assume that because the user base of the internet is so vast, diverse and active, that we who brave the waters of such relentlessly fast-paced media will be showered with attention from all angles, positive and negative. When we write our provocatively snarky think-piece on ‘the rise and fall of you-know-what-I’m-talking-about’, we can be so convinced that the masses will jump up, click and re-click their immediate approval and even the trolls will come marching into our comment stream to illustrate the vital nerve that we have touched. That, however, is so rarely how this digital writing thing actually unfolds, at least in my corner of the internet.

Here’s where I think we can fall into a trap. We want audience. We want readers. We’d like to win over subscribers. We want to feel useful and appreciated and worthy and maybe even important. And audience seems like a way to get there. How many subscribers to your blog before you can call your writing endeavor a success? What’s the critical mass of Twitter followers required to be considered a “thought leader”? How do you get to be listed as a LinkedIn Influencer when you post an article?

Because in digital media we like to let numbers and metrics tell the story – the story of reach, of clicks, of views, visits and referrals. These metrics are then readily folded into narratives about popularity, trends, importance, because in the economy of attention, these things matter. These metrics tell us many things but they fail to tell us as writers and as people enough of what we really need to know: Whom did I reach? What was it that resonated? Where was I misconstrued? Then, going a little deeper: What is in this piece for me? What lessons do I want to keep for myself? What would I do well to let go of right now?

The information that we most often crave about audience reaches us typically through other avenues, if at all: through comments, tweets and retweets, shares across different platforms. And so much of all that will remain unknown. And in digital writing as in other forms expression we need to be okay with that.

So how do we find audience, after all?

If we want audience, then we must first and foremost be audience. We need to read widely and astutely. We need to pause as we read the work of others – and become permeable. Being an audience means letting others into our worlds, leaving space for the sparring and dancing of  ideas. Being an audience means listening – dropping defenses, setting aside our emotional reactivity for a moment. When we do these things, we become an audience of value and increase the likelihood of helpful and constructive interaction. We acknowledge a response within and perhaps also ‘out there’, privately or publicly.  

For me, this slow and steady acculturation of being audience while growing audience has afforded me the opportunity to mature into this writing practice at my own pace. In fact when I examine the bulk of my digital work, I quite simply would characterize it as “writing back.” So much of what I write emerges as necessary and somehow urgent responses – to something I read, saw, experienced, heard. I write back to authors. I write back to my students. I write back to my professional/personal learning network (PLN). I also write back to myself.

When I’m not writing I do many other things: I teach, I coach, I parent, I facilitate, I move, I read, I lead, I follow. And by now these aspects flow freely into my writing. The immediacy of the digital – the risk and opportunity of exposure coupled with the potential speed of engagement and response -for me, this underscores the imperative of being the audience I want to have. Remaining focused on the distinctly human dimensions of our lightning fast communication channels stands at the core of what, why and how I choose to create.

It may seem that we are all born under the sign of algorithms’ ascendency and that the astrology of our common future may be reduced to a handful of branded provider platforms.  Yet it is and will continue to be our choice to uphold and broaden the reach, impact and benefit of the irreplaceably human in each of us whether we are reading, writing, listening, speaking. We need to think about our offer as both/and instead of either/or. Writer and listener. Reader and speaker. Being the audience that makes positive waves requires more from us as writers, educators, activists and contributors and also serves to regularly remind us of what we are in fact here for.

What matters to me in contributing to this year’s digital writing month? Supporting audience in all its forms and iterations; making audience a 30-day verb.

32 thoughts on “Author, Audience and Parts of Speech

  1. I often consider
    for whom my words are intended,
    and yet, not often enough,
    for when and where my words
    will be situated;

    In whose code will my ideas reside,
    and on what screen and what device
    will my wanderings slowly crawl their way forward
    in time?

    Am I merely bookmarked for
    later consideration
    or perhaps deleted without a thought,
    without hesitation?

    Maybe my words are as often as lost as I am,
    weighed down by the baggage
    of links and sounds and images,
    of tweets and updates and plus-ones,
    of identity and language and cultural divides

    while somehow we still surface on the inside
    of the stream that forever beckons us forward,
    leaving us gasping for air
    yet finding us there:

    we write … together.

    -Kevin
    PS — a bit of line-lifting poetry to honor your writing, Sherri. Thanks for the thoughtful post that moves us into DigiWriMo on a reflective tone.

  2. Pingback: Author, Audience and Parts of Speech, Sherri Spelic | Adventures in Genre

  3. Wow
    Well said.
    Spot on.

    I want an audience (to me numbers don’t count so much). I want to be read. Want people to react.
    And yes, the way to get there, is to be an audience yourself.
    Even better, be the audience you’d want to have.

    So well said in your post.
    Thumbs up and link is saved for later in my Evernote app.

  4. Well said! Although I too am not at all worried about numbers, and in fact may want them to remain small. Nonetheless, the prescription is correct: be an audience yourself.

    Beautiful response, Kevin!

  5. Agreed.
    Stephen Downes claims that the most important aspect of open and connected learning is to “connect” to comment and respond to each other. Tanya Lau helped me with this concept because she could be counted on to respond to posts when we were both participating in XPLRPLN. I try to consistently respond to other people’s post in a manner that goes past “great post” or “I agree” – although often what spurs me to respond is that I agree or it is a great post.
    Sherri as I read your piece it paralleled my thinking so closely (even your choice of words) that it felt as if I was reading what my brain was saying.
    Thanks

    • Oh, wow! Makes me want to learn more about your brain and its workings, Maureen! Thanks so much for taking the time to respond. When I consider this whole online enterprise and how I choose to cultivate my miniscule slice of it, I really believe that this is ultimately all we’ve got, our fundamentally human capacity to exchange thoughts, experience and express empathy. Digital? Sure. Human? Always.

  6. Sherri,

    So well put. And such a change. In our lifetime, or mine at least. I was, for 33 years, a journalist, mostly in newspapers. Our readers, our audience, was set. Our goal was to actually draw them in to read AND finish our piece. At one point, a Sunday piece of mine could be read by 400,000 or so souls. Could be. It was up to me. And my editor. And then, later, it was up to me, editor, to help the writers reach that audience, to be read.

    A very different mindset. And our focus was on the story itself — is it compelling? what is the framing question? what is the narrative arc? would anyone other than our mother read it?

    So now we have a different problem: We must find the readers, the audience. I love what you wrote. I love particularly this line:

    “If we want audience, then we must first and foremost be audience. We need to read widely and astutely.”

    So true. As we tell kids on youngwritersproject.org, to get a reaction, give a reaction. Yes it is building audience, but it’s also building a relationship, a connection. We are not only trying to build an audience but a relationship, too.

    Tough.

    And the rest is, well, kind of luck. I had a story that went “viral,” and after a week or so it had gained 350,000 or so views. Cool. Very cool in this day and age. But it was one Sunday piece.

    So I think what I’ve done, as a writer, is akin to what you have written, what Ronald and others have commented, that our satisfaction is now derived in smaller spheres, more meaningful connection. If one person reads it and we change their thinking, we capture their imagination, we make them think of their own experience, it has been worth it.

    The Web has, in fact, not brought us together but it has splintered us into what we have always been, individuals in a small space on the earth. So we are more local now than ever. It’s just that our local is different. It’s not just the farmer down the road, or the neighbor next door. It is someone we connect with via Twitter or, even, #digiwrimo. Thanks so much for this piece. Thoughtful. Honest. Direct. It meant something to me. It made me think.

    cheers,

    geoff gevalt

    • Wow Geoff, if I wrote something that went viral, I think I would be terrified and feel it to be unlucky! :) I deleted some of my tweets that became too popular! They way you express your thoughts about the meaningfulness of connection, highlighting the odd journey that going global online has made us value even more what our local is, makes me think a lot about some of my own philosophies about local community. We’re coming back to the value of uniqueness of local experience and valuing it so much more by sharing it meaningfully with others. :)

    • Your response, Geoff, gives me pause. What does it mean when someone like you who has had the experience of a genuinely large audience can subscribe to what I have written here?
      When you say that we are “now more local than ever” but that our “local is different” – that captures my experience of the digital realm so neatly. I experience my corner of the Twitterverse as a neighborhood of my own making. Evenings are when I (mostly) can come out to play with my friends.
      Participating in #DigiWriMo feels a bit like taking a trip out of town, maybe even abroad, where not everything will necessarily be familiar or ‘just like home.’ But I travel willingly and gladly, full of curiosity and prepared for adventure, the unexpected. Meeting fellow travelers makes the trip fully worthwhile and fulfilling.
      Thank you for being here and sharing your thoughts. That means something to me.
      Sherri

      • Sherri,

        It is a pleasure to meet and interact with you and others in this #digiwrimo experience which is, as you say, like going to a party in a new town with totally new people.

        I am glad my response resonated with you. It is something I think about a great deal — and only wish sometimes that I had the time to take a deep breath and get it all down on paper in some coherent fashion (I mean digital paper of course) — because we at Young Writers Project (htt://youngwritersproject.org) feel strong that this young generation will have to contend with not only learning to write but ALSO incorporating digital media and ALSO finding and cultivating and building audience. All against a societal, cultural social-media-created yardstick that it is imperative that we have more visits, more click-throughs, more likes, more followers… “yeesh. So tedious. I just want to write. I just want to express myself. Leave me alone…”

        So what we are working on is a strategy where our site — with peer support, mentors and guest artists — will help youths gain these skills (that is, 1) develop, work, grow more enthusiastic about YOUR idea; 2) share it, take in suggestions, re-explore it, re-vise it; 3) incorporate digital media which may force another re-exploration; 4) polish; 5) present it to an audience.

        All along the way we help — with youth leading. And we have ideas to connect youths from around the country and world, to use new partners in high-speed networks to help with video capabilities and potential for volunteers and paid artists (and youth leaders) to lead formal and informal learning workshops in writing, digital media and finding ways to craft stories in a way that captures audience the old way — organically and because they are good.

        But we hope the kids will leave us knowing how to write, how to create good sound, images and video and what platforms to use and how to get people’s attention — outside their communities — when they want it.

        So thank you for listening. Thank you for joining this madcap month which still baffles me slightly because all we’re doing is writing every day and that’s what we always do!

        cheers,
        gg

  7. Thanks Sherri for tagging me in the tweet that directed me here – I really enjoyed reading your lovely post that links reading, people and writing . Like Maureen, I almost felt as if you were speaking my thoughts even though, I don’t have your history of journalling.
    I noticed something else though. You tagged Frank Pasquale and wrote about algorithms

    ”It may seem that we are all born under the sign of algorithms’ ascendency and that the astrology of our common future may be reduced to a handful of branded provider platforms. Yet it is and will continue to be our choice to uphold and broaden the reach, impact and benefit of the irreplaceably human in each of us whether we are reading, writing, listening, speaking. ”

    And I thought about the role of the algorithm in what (to read) is presented to us to catch our attention. Just a thought :)

  8. I can relate to a lot of what you write Sherri, and particularly about being the audience you want to have. If I’m joining a new community, I tend to want to put all of my energy into responding to others with my own stuff brewing in the background.

    I find myself in a funny place of mostly having run away from audience for my writing, countering what sometimes feels like pretty immense pressure from lots of people who suggest I should “write a book”. I love to write, so therefore I should publish, but I just don’t think it’s that simple.?

    This is why I’m here in #DigiWriMo I suppose. Attention first came to my writing in primary school and since then, I’ve been courting a dance between wanting to have an audience, and then running away from it. I wonder if this why some writers feel drawn to pseudonyms perhaps? I write, I always will, and yes, being scared of attention on writing, is a bit weirdly human of me. I am sharing a lot more these days, but there is still much over-thinking and hesitation.

    I would like genuinely like to to learn to crave audience, instead of the pit of doom feeling – so I think it’s quite wonderful that you brought this conversation about audience into the mix. :)

    • I am so glad if you found this post helpful, Angela. I empathize with your dilemma and i think many of us wrestle with going and being public in too many ways to count. You are certainly not alone! However you may feel about audience, whatever keeps you writing is the gift to be nurtured and cultivated. The fact that you are here, writing to engage, means that you write with purpose. What satisfies you? What pleases and uplifts you when you write? These are reasons enough. Where you decide to take it after that is wide open and maybe #DigiWriMo is a place to see just how wide open those possibilities may be. Please stay in touch. I’d like to hear more about your considerations and processes.
      Thanks for showing up and jumping in!
      Sherri

    • Ooh, Barthes. It’s easy to be scared off but that link hits the mark. Thanks for that addition to the conversation, Bryan. That notion of “scriptor” seems like a very useful one and describes so much of what our digital creations seem to live from – what has been previously said, shown, discussed.

  9. I’m so interested in people voicing experiences of shyness and ambivalence about being seen, being read, being caught reading. I’m the same. I love this post and I’ve returned to it several times because I also learned to write online by commenting. “Writing back” is a phrase that resonates strongly for me, and it really helped me understanding how writing back was key to my eventually making it to my own online space for writing out. Thank you for making all this so clear, so generously.

    • Dear Kate,
      Your response honors me in a special way. I have read some of your posts and I have such a deep respect for the depth of your writing. Even the title of your blog, Music For Deckchairs, conjures a haunting image in my mind that both intrigues and confuses me. So I feel humbled to know that my thoughts resonated with you and your experience as a writer. That’s pretty much as good as it gets in my book. As I wrote to friend last week: I’m just going to go over here and rest on these laurels…
      #DigiWriMo can just go on like this, thank you very much.

  10. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this, Sherri! It’s a great reminder that to be engaged creators, we also need to be active readers, viewers, listeners, and commenters. We can’t very well participate in the discussion if we aren’t paying attention to what everyone else is talking about; it’s about being a member of a digital community, not just producing content for one.

    Cheers!

    • Thanks for your thoughts on this Craig. I think it’s easy to forget how to be good neighbors and community members when the potential community is so vast and dispersed. Listening, though is a skill that travels especially well and transfers comfortably from one medium to the next. That’s what I’m banking on at least.

  11. Sherri, your post made me think, always a good thing. And, what beautiful replies, in such a variety of voices. This one “series” would make a great mentor text on voice.

    One of my sons is in his third year of college as an English major. He loves words and language and narrative, but despairs that writing today is composed mostly of sound bites and fluffy blogs. I wish I had a way to convince him to look at the writing you people do, but at 21, he is skeptical that mom knows much .

    Bravo to all of you!

    • Thanks, Charlene, for reading and writing. The bounty of comments has been a wonderful surprise and honor. I mean, who gets two poems in response to a blog post! That is humbling and also fully enlivening. And yes, I suspect your son will find the writing, online or elsewhere, which will meet his needs for depth and nuance in good time. It’s already a great sign that he is skeptical and critical of what he sees on offer. I, too, have a son in that very age range – and no, he’s not asking me about my recommendations for much of anything. So, with you!

    • Thanks, Charlene, for reading and writing. The bounty of comments has been a wonderful surprise and honor. I mean, who gets two poems in response to a blog post! That is humbling and also fully enlivening. And yes, I suspect your son will find the writing, online or elsewhere, which will meet his needs for depth and nuance in good time. It’s already a great sign that he is skeptical and critical of what he sees on offer. I, too, have a son in that very age range – and no, he’s not asking me about my recommendations for much of anything.

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