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I've never written for anything other than personal enjoyment or for a predefined context before. I have ideas and partial drafts for several books and want to finish at least one this year. My concern is about how I need to change my writing when I intend for it to be read by a larger audience, particular how do I ensure it has a clear target audience?

When writing a story is it better to choose a target audience and keep it in mind while writing, or to write whatever and then figure out the target audience?

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Both.

If I get an idea, I'll have a good sense of the target audience. The age group, the genre, etc. But when I'm writing, it might morph. And that's okay. I'll keep writing and let it be what it needs to be, then recategorize it.

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Let me expand on @Cyn's answer.

Tolkien wrote for himself. He was sure there would never be an audience for the Silamrillion, and was surprised by the wide acclaim of The Lord of the Rings. So were the critics, by the way. What happened is, Tolkien wanted to read a certain thing. Because it wasn't to be found, he went and wrote it. (Note that 'fantasy' didn't even exist as a genre back then.) Because it was this new thing, critics didn't know what to make of it, and the public only found out that yes, they did in fact want this, after the thing was written. So, from that perspective, write what you want, the audience will be found later.

At the same time, you need to stay aware of the general age group you're writing for. Your tone, your vocabulary, your content would all be influenced by whether you're writing for a child or an adult.

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The real question is what do you want to accomplish by writing. If it is to make money or gain fame or impress the neighborhood, then you would likely write to engage one or more target audiences. If you write, as I do, to shape your thinking, then the target audience is yourself. If you write for the joy of creation through the exercise of the writing craft, then who cares who else reads it, other than to validate that you have mastered the craft.

The joy of current technology is that you can serve any of these goals with a minimum amount of effort. You can blog and use that medium to expose shorter works. You can write a novel or a how-to book and publish it through Amazon or similar mechanisms. There are minimal barriers to how you might publish your work. The gatekeepers still exist and they still matter but you can go around them with ease. You do not have to make much of an argument that your work will attract an audience sufficient to provide a return on the investment needed to convey your work to that audience. Just do it.

Thus, the key question becomes, what you do want to get out of the process. And only you can answer that one.

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