Choosing and Writing for an Audience

by Dr. Steven Hale

What is an Audience?

An audience is anyone who reads, sees, or hears a message (a story or essay, a speech, a painting, and so on).

Types of Audience

There are at least two types of audiences: real and intended. The real audience is anyone who reads or perceives the message; the intended audience is the target group that the message sender has in mind. For an essay, the real readers could be the teacher, a friend, a tutor in the writing lab--even a computerized grammar checker. The intended audience of an essay could be young, middle-aged, or old; male or female; politicians or voters; African-Americans or European-Americans or South Americans. Normally the teacher is not the intended audience unless your goal is to persuade or inform the teacher of something (e.g. to change an attendance policy).

Choosing an Audience

1. Why is important to write with the intended audience in mind?

We all have many ways of talking and writing--we can be formal or informal, concise or detailed, technical, specialized or general. Normally we choose a writing strategy based on who we think of as our reader. Knowing your audience before you write will make the process of writing easier because it simplifies the decisions you have to make. Writing with a specific audience in mind will also give your essay more unity of purpose and style and will involve your reader more directly in your argument. It can also be helpful to write with the real audience in mind; for example, if you know that your teacher has a particular view, your essay could try either to please or to challenge the teacher. If you have electronic mail at your job and you know that the computer systems administrator is reading your e-mail, you might be more careful in what you say about the boss.

2. How does choosing an audience affect the purpose?

If you don't have a particular intended audience in mind, or if you say that your essay is for "everybody" or "society" or "people interested in this topic," your writing will tend to be as general as your intention. Your real purpose will be (or seem to be) turning in an assignment to the teacher (and the teacher won't be a happy reader). On the other hand, if you see yourself as addressing a real reader, you will have a much clearer understanding of your purpose, and your reader will feel more involved.

3. How does choosing an audience affect the strategy (style, support, tone, vocabulary)?

Often you have to decide how formal or casual to make your essay. Students who think of the teacher as the intended reader often ask "Can I use slang?" A teacher who wants to exercise control by being the intended audience will typically answer yes or no; a teacher who wants the writer to control his/her writing may respond, "Would your reader want or appreciate the particular slang expression?" Knowing the intended audience, then, enables you to ask questions and make choices rather than following rules. You will also have to decide how much support to give for a point. The teacher may state a rule like "your term paper must contain at least ten sources" (and it's usually a good idea to please the teacher in this respect), but the real question is "how much support does the intended audience need?" Real-world writers think in these terms, not in terms of length or number of sources. In technical writing, you may also have to choose whether or not to define special terms; if you know your intended reader's level of expertise, this choice is much easier.

4. How specific should the choice of audience be?

Usually, the more specific your choice is, the easier your decisions will be. Again, if you're writing for "all college-educated readers" or for "my peers," you may have difficulties in selecting a single tone or in knowing how much support to give.

Writing for an Audience

1. What does your audience believe?

Although you may belong to the same general group as your intended readers, it's often a mistake to assume that your readers already agree with you or knows the material you're trying to convey. If the readers agree totally with you, why do they need to read your statement? But if you assume that your readers are either uncommitted or leaning to the other side, then you will know from the start what and why to argue your point.

2. How do you indicate the audience in the paper?

You can describe your audience directly, usually in the introduction. In an essay to persuade smokers to avoid smoking around their children, you might include a statement like the following: "Many smokers are unaware of how much second-hand smoke endangers the health of their children." Often you don't have to label the audience directly, since the choices of style, tone, or support indicate the audience. For example, an article urging older people to take a stand against age discrimination won't include examples of young people who suffer from discrimination. Sometimes the title or the source of the work indicates the audience. The Idiot's Guide to WordPerfect is clearly not written for seasoned WordPerfect users, and an article in Scientific American will not target grade-school science students.

3. How do you establish rapport with the audience?

The most important place to define your relationship with the reader is in the introduction; if you do so only later, you may lose the intended audience. By making appropriate choices of style, tone, and support, you will also ensure that the reader feels you are taking him/her into account. A note on using "you": many teachers warn students not to use the second person pronoun "you." Many real world writers, however, use "you" (as well as direct commands) to establish a direct, fairly informal rapport with the reader (as does this handout), and sometimes trying to avoid the second person makes writing awkward or stilted. There are two main reasons for avoiding you: (1) avoid "you" in very formal writing (term papers, scientific writing, legal documents); (2) avoid "you" when you mean "anyone"; remember, you have worked hard to define a specific intended audience, so using the generic "you" may actually confuse the reader.

4. How do you direct the audience's attention?

Visual artists often use color or lighting to emphasize a point; musicians and speakers often change the volume or pitch of their text. Writers can use italics, bold print, fancy typefaces (often called fonts), typographical and other symbols, smileys( :^) ) (which should be read sideways), or different sizes, but the least gimmicky way and most effective way to direct your reader is through transitions. Try to avoid simplistic transitions like "first," "second," and "third"; instead use transitions that show the relationship between ideas, such as "nevertheless" or "for example." Better still, use transition sentences that connect the old idea to the new one, as does the middle sentence in the following example:

Opponents of forced busing point to the long distances children have to travel. But proponents note that during segregation, buses took minority students on long trips past white schools. The key issue, therefore, is not distance but equal access to a good education.

5. How do you wrap up with an audience?

The conclusion is not just a way to indicate that the end of the essay is near; it's also your chance to indicate to the audience what you want them to do or think as a result of having read your paper. Rather than just summarizing or repeating your main point, you can look to the future, envisioning a consequence of the particular change you've advocated. This can be a subtle but effective way of implying that you believe your reader has accepted the truths of your argument.