5.C: Considering the Audience


Audience matters

When writing a paper, it’s easy to forget that someone will be reading the essay. Sometimes the audience is a very generalized group of readers, sometimes the writer knows the individuals who compose the audience, and sometimes writers write for themselves. Keeping the audience helps the writer to make make good decisions about what material to include, how to organize ideas, and how best to support the argument.


STEP 1: Consider a time when you had a lot of fun with your friends – at a party, on a school trip, at a concert, etc. Write two letters that describe the event.  Write the first letter to a grandparent (or some older family member).  Write the second letter to a friend who was not with you.

STEP 2:  Below the letters, write a description of how the two letters differ.  What accounts for those differences? (Be specific & offer examples.)



Isn’t my Instructor my Audience?

Yes, the instructor or TA is probably the actual audience for the paper. Instructors read and grade essays, so students want to keep their needs and perspectives in mind when they write. However, when students write an essay with only their instructor in mind, they might not say as much as they should or say it as clearly as they should because they assume that the person grading it knows more about the topic than they do and will fill in the gaps. This approach leaves it up to the instructor to decide what students are really saying, and the instructor might interpret the information differently than expected. For example, the instructor might decide that those gaps show that students don’t know and understand the material.

Thinking about audience differently can improve your writing, especially in terms of how clearly writers express their argument. The clearer the points are, the more likely writers will have written a strong essay.  By treating the instructor as an intelligent but uninformed audience, students end up addressing the topic more effectively.



How do I identify my audience and what they want from me?

Before beginning the process of writing, take some time to consider who your audience is and what they want from you. Use the following questions to help you identify your audience and what you can do to address their wants and needs.

  • Who is your audience?
  • Might you have more than one audience? If so, how many audiences do you have? List them.
  • Does your assignment itself give any clues about your audience? What does your audience need? What do they want? What do they value?
  • What is most important to them?
  • What are they least likely to care about?
  • What kind of organization would best help your audience understand and appreciate your arguments?
  • What do you have to say (or what are you doing in your research) that might surprise your audience?
  • What do you want your audience to think, learn, or assume about you? What impression do you want your writing or your research to convey?



How much should be explained?

This is the hard part. As stated earlier, students should show their instructor that they know the material. But different assignments call for varying degrees of information. Different fields also have different expectations.

The best place to start figuring out how much information should be included lies in a careful reading of the assignment. The assignment may specify an audience for the paper; sometimes the instructor will ask students to imagine that they are writing to a congressperson, for a professional journal, to a group of specialists in a particular field, or for a group of your peers. If the assignment doesn’t specify an audience, imagine classmates reading the paper, rather than the instructor.

Now, knowing an imaginary audience, what other clues appear in the assignment? If the assignment asks the writer to summarize something that’s been read, then the reader wants the writer to include more examples from the text than if the assignment asks for an interpretation of the passage. Most assignments in college focus on argument rather than the repetition of learned information, so a reader probably doesn’t want a lengthy, detailed, point-by-point summary of a reading (book reports in some classes and argument reconstructions in philosophy classes are big exceptions to this rule). If the assignment asks students to interpret or analyze the text (or an event or idea), then they wants to make sure that the explanation of the material is focused and not so detailed that they end up spending more time on examples than on the analysis.

Here are two handouts from UNC, Chapel Hill  about  reading the assignment and argument.


Receiving Feedback

Once a draft is written, try your level of explanation out on a friend, a classmate, or a Writing Center tutor. Get the person to read your rough draft, and then ask her to talk to you about what she did and didn’t understand. (Now is not the time to talk about proofreading or editing, so make sure she ignores those issues for the time being). You will likely get one of the following responses or a combination of them:

  • If your listener/reader has tons of questions about what you are saying, then you probably need to explain more. Let’s say you are writing a paper on piranhas, and your reader says, “What’s a piranha? Why do I need to know about them? How would I identify one?” Those are vital questions that you clearly need to answer in your paper. You need more detail and elaboration.
  • If your reader seems confused, you probably need to explain more clearly. So if he says, “Are there piranhas in the lakes around here?” you may not need to give more examples, but rather focus on making sure your examples and points are clear.
  • If your reader looks bored and can repeat back to you more details than she needs to know to get your point, you probably explained too much. Excessive detail can also be confusing, because it can bog the reader down and keep her from focusing on your main points. You want your reader to say, “So it seems like your paper is saying that piranhas are misunderstood creatures that are essential to South American ecosystems,” not, “Uh… piranhas are important?” or, “Well, I know you said piranhas don’t usually attack people, and they’re usually around 10 inches long, and some people keep them in aquariums as pets, and dolphins are one of their predators, and…a bunch of other stuff, I guess?”

Putting yourself in the reader’s position

Instead of reading your draft as if you wrote it and know what you meant, try reading it as if you have no previous knowledge of the material. Have you explained enough? Are the connections clear? This can be hard to do at first. Consider using one of the following strategies:

  • Take a break from your work—go work out, take a nap, take a day off. This is why the Writing Center and your instructors encourage you to start writing more than a day before the paper is due. If you write the paper the night before it’s due, you make it almost impossible to read the paper with a fresh eye.
  • Try outlining after writing—after you have a draft, look at each paragraph separately. Write down the main point for each paragraph on a separate sheet of paper, in the order you have put them. Then look at your “outline”—does it reflect what you meant to say, in a logical order? Are some paragraphs hard to reduce to one point? Why? This technique will help you find places where you may have confused your reader by straying from your original plan for the paper.
  • Read the paper aloud—we do this all the time at the Writing Center, and once you get used to it, you’ll see that it helps you slow down and really consider how your reader experiences your text. It will also help you catch a lot of sentence-level errors, such as misspellings and missing words, which can make it difficult for your reader to focus on your argument.



Word Choice & Tone

Sometimes it’s not the amount of explanation that matters, but the word choice and tone the writer adopts. Word choice and tone need to match the audience’s expectations.

(For example, imagine you are researching piranhas; you find an article in National Geographic and another one in an academic journal for scientists. How would you expect the two articles to sound? National Geographic is written for a popular audience; you might expect it to have sentences like “The piranha generally lives in shallow rivers and streams in South America.” The scientific journal, on the other hand, might use much more technical language, because it’s written for an audience of specialists. A sentence like “Serrasalmus piraya lives in fresh and brackish intercoastal and proto-arboreal sub-tropical regions between the 45th and 38th parallels” might not be out of place in the journal.)

Generally, writers want their readers to know enough material to understand the points being made. It’s like the old forest/trees metaphor. If the writer gives the reader nothing but trees, she won’t see the forest (the thesis, the reason for they paper). If a writer gives her a big forest and no trees, she won’t know how you got to the forest (She might say, “Your point is fine, but you haven’t proven it to me”). The writer wants the reader to say, “Nice forest, and those trees really help me to see it.” Our handout on paragraph development can help you find a good balance of examples and explanation.



Additional GUIDELINES from UNiversity of north carolina

***For more about what each field tends to expect from an essay, see the Writing Center handouts on writing in specific fields of study.
***For more information about how to read an assignment, see reading the assignment.