The importance of considering audience often goes overlooked. You might find the thought redundant suspecting (often correctly) only one person reads your paper: the instructor. Yet, tailoring your paper for the teacher may not be the best advice. Problems of discreteness may arise. You may take for granted what the professor knows and not clarify or elaborate when you should. While you believe you are artfully skipping unessential information, your professor may have the opposite impression: you don’t know the material. On the other side of the spectrum, if you elaborate on too many details your paper can become tedious.
There are challenges other than making false assumptions about what the teacher knows. If you consider the instructor your only audience you may ignore the intended audience for the material at hand. All effective writing is based on how it meets the context that provokes it. This context could be your field, what others have said (similar arguments and counter arguments), and the larger conversation. Don’t get me wrong, the instructor is your immediate audience, but don't assume they know your topic. If you write as if your teacher does not know as much as you about your topic, it will be easier to balance what you need to include.
Before you identify the intended audience for your material, make sure you understand the assignment prompt. Knowing the teacher’s expectations will help you determine your purpose, the first step in identifying your audience. For instance, consider an assignment calling you to analyze a newspaper article about a state government’s response to an environmental issue—say, fracking. Your thoughts about fracking or how the state handled that issue won’t be the main focus. Rather, your paper will be about the strengths and weaknesses of the author’s representation of this issue. You aren't writing to the government, environmentalists, etc., but to an audience interested in media representation and rhetorical analysis. This audience might not know about fracking. You might make room in your paper to clarify points that relate to fracking. But you would not have to explain things like ethos, logos, pathos, etc.
Knowing your purpose will help you adopt the correct tone. Continuing the fracking example—you would probably choose a formal tone, analyzing excerpts from the author’s work and even comparing it to other sources on the same issue. You have to convince your audience whether the author represented the issue fairly, so you want to choose a tone that complements your credibility as a rhetorical analyst. You will likely form an opinion on whether the author accurately represented the issue, but you will support this opinion with facts.
If, on the other hand, your task is to write an opinion essay, you might use a more informal tone, relying on personal response to the issue. Opinion pieces don't have to be completely informal. You still support your opinions, but you might support them with experience and anecdotes in a more casual manner. You might include humor or deploy elements of shock and surprise. Depending on what you hope your paper to achieve, you might even adopt a more scholarly tone to voice stronger opinions. So, not only does teacher expectation, context, and purpose determine audience, but your personal goals.
Finally, your approach plays an important role in audience: what attitude you wish to employ, what stance you want to take. Do you want to sound ironic, skeptical, amused, annoyed, objective, or supportive? Whatever you choose, these choices limit options of what to include or omit. If you took an amused stance to the fracking issue, an audience might be confused and need to know why the issue was so funny. If you took an angry stance, you might have to justify your anger. Questions of stance force you to put yourself in the audience’s shoes. How would the reader respond if you took on an ironic tone in your paper, would they be surprised, annoyed? Every choice you make in a paper is done in relation to audience. When you get stuck figuring out what to write next or you have written too much and think you need to cut—try thinking in relationship to audience. The amount of focus this thinking can lend will surprise you.
For further information about audience or help with the writing process, stop by the writing center or make an appointment online.
May 13, 2015