What to Think about When Writing for a Particular Audience

Writers must have a clear sense of to whom they are writing (the audience) and what the audience’s values and/or opinions related to the topic are.

Photo of a microphone, close-up, with a large audience in the blurry background

Imagine a history professor who opens her lecture on the Victorian era by asking her undergraduate students, “Did you see the Victorian-era furniture on Antiques Roadshow last night?” Can you imagine how many in the class would raise his/her hand? Can you hear the confused silence?

Photo of a rack of white T-shirts  that say "The Lecture Bored Me to Death."  Extending from the photo is a thin yellow line, with an arrow to the message on the shirt.Most of the students in the audience are under the age of thirty, with the majority falling between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. They do not own property and probably have little interest in antiques. The target audience of Antiques Roadshow, though, reflects middle-aged and older middle class folks who, most likely, own propery and, perhaps, antiques of their own. How effective of an opener was this professor’s question given her audience? Not very.

To communicate effectively and persuasively

Photo of a commentator from Antiques Roadshow, sitting at a table, wearing a bow tie, suit, and dark glasses, smiling.Writers must have a clear sense of to whom they are writing (the audience) and what the audience’s values and/or opinions related to the topic are. When in conversation, we often shift our tone and/or language to adapt to our audience.

Consider how you talk differently to young children than you do to your professors. When communicating with a child, you may use simple language and a playful or enthusiastic tone. With your professors, however, you may try out academic language, using bigger words and more complex sentences. Your tone may be more professional than casual and more critical than entertaining.


For example . . .

Imagine that you need money. When you craft an email to your parents asking for money, your approach might be different than if you were to ask your roommate for money. Your tone, language, and means of appeal will adapt to who your audience is.

Screen shot of an email on a computer screen.  To: ,Mom "home". worldsgreatestmom@gmail.com.  Subject: djones@university.edu.  Beneath text options for the email, is the text of the email itself: Hey Mom. School is great. I'm meeting plenty of friends. Sorry I've missed all your phone calls.  I study all the time it feels like, and when I'm not studying, I try to sleep. Some of the guys in dorm have been cooking at night together, and that's pretty cool. Reminds me of home. So, I'm writing to ask if you could send me a little cash. I spent way more on books than I had budgeted for, and now I'm out of fund for groceries and gas. Can you help? Thanks so much Mom! I love you.


  • The tone of your email is casual, conversational, and upbeat (“School is great!”).
  • The language that you use is simple, easy to read. Sentences are short and rely mostly on action verbs.
  • You appeal to your parent first by recalling positive memories of home, as though you know your mom is missing you (“reminds me of home”). This is a tug at the heartstrings (or pathos appeal). By offering specific details about the cost of your chemistry textbook, you make a logos appeal (to her sense of logic). You also highlight your responsible nature, which develops an ethos appeal: “I study nearly all the time,” “I try to sleep,” and “books [more than] I budgeted.” Telling your mom that books were more expensive than you imagined links your request for additional cash to your pursuit of an education, something that makes her happy and that adds to your credibility.


Screen shot of an email on a computer screen.  To: john@university.edu  Subject: djones@university.edu.  Beneath text options for the email, is the text of the email itself: John--Hey, I bought groceries the last two times we've shopped. And I'm totally okay with that, but now I am low on funds. I need some gas money, so I wonder if you could spot me some cash. Thanks!


For more information about ethos, pathos, and logos, see “Rhetorical Appeals.”

  • When asking your roommate for cash, the tone may remain casual though it will appear less conversational. I mean, after all, you talk to this person every day. Also, noting “I’m totally okay with” buying two rounds of groceries creates a feeling of generosity rather than resentment.
  • The language gets even simpler. Notice how much shorter the sentences are and how quickly the writer gets to the point; there is less need for “window dressing” your appeal. Colloquial language appears here—“could you spot me some cash”—rather than the more formal request the writer made to his mother, “I’m out of funds for groceries and gas. Can you help?”
  • Reminding the roommate that you bought the last two rounds of groceries functions as an appeal in two ways: first, it establishes your credibility as a good friend; and second, it appeals to the roommate’s sense of logic (of course you need some extra money; you’ve got a free loader kind of roommate!).

A writing assignment . . .

Your professor asks you to write an academic argument paper on a topic of your choice. Academic writing is usually directed to an educated audience interested in critical, analytical thinking.

Let’s imagine you choose to write about adoption rights within the LGBT community. More specifically, you’ll argue that stable LGBT couples deserve the opportunity to adopt children just as stable heterosexual couples are allowed to do.

You’ll adapt tone, language, and appeals to suit the writing project’s

  • Audience
  • Purpose
  • Context
  • Medium
A flowchart.  Each of four sections overlaps, with yellow arrows as the title bars.  From the left, and the top arrow, is Audience, containing "what does your audience read (helpful info for adapting tone and language)? / What are some of the values of the audience? / What personal traits do you know about their age, location, region, political tendency, education, race, gender, and familial status? / What might your audience already know about your topic? / What new and insightful information will you offer them? / How do you anticipate that your audience feels about this topic? / Which points of you argument may prove most contencious for this audience?.  The 2nd box is Purpose: What do you want to convince the audience of? / What do you want the audience to do after taking in your argument? / How will your writing contribute to the current conversation on this topic?.  The third box is "Context": Where is this debate being discussed (in the media, in LGBT studies, in psychology literature, for example)? / What major points frame the debate? / What perspectives dominate the current conversation? Why? / What points of agreement exist within the debate? / Where is there potential for common ground within the debate? / What is the history of this debate (how long has it been going on; what major events have impacted the discussion)?.  The last box is Medium: Is multimodality possible (combining visual, spatial, auditory, and textual elements)? / What genre will be serve your purpose (we're writing an argument per our professor's assignment)? / How will the audience access your writing?


Brainstorming and planning


When you write to all readers, you, in fact, write to no one at all.

Photo of humanoid robot figures with blank eyes and no expression.  Superimposed on the image is the text: Novice writers may assume that their writing can be directed to a broad, unnamed, faceless audience and that their words can be read and experienced universally by diverse individuals. Not so. Such an assumption contributes to ineffective and boring writing. Writers should tailor their tone, language, and appeals to suit their audience (to whom are you writing?), the purpose (why are you writing and what do you want the reader to do after finishing your essay?), the medium (how can you help the reader to understand and be attracted to your writing?), and the context (what is the dominant conversation about this topic? what kinds of evidence will be most valued?).