Taking Audience into Account
One of the most important things to take into account when writing a paper is who the audience is. Is it a professor, classmates, an administrator, the general public, or for no one else? Each of these audiences would require a different approach in terms of what information to include, how ideas are organized, and even what sort of language to use.
Determining The Audience
When attempting to determine the audience of a paper, ask the following questions:
Who is the primary audience?
For the vast majority of academic papers, the simple answer to this question is "the professor." However, the assignments may contain clues that indicate a broader, or simply different, audience. Even if the prompt doesn't state it explicitly, practicing writing for specific audiences is a good skill to cultivate.
For example, a professor may state in the prompt that the writer should be writing for 5th graders or for their fellow classmates. For 5th graders, a writer may want to use a simpler vocabulary and shorter sentences. For fellow students, however, there is probably advanced terminology and a certain level of knowledge and understanding of the topic that can be assumed, and thus the writer may craft more complex sentences and ideas. For more on this, see the section below on "What level of information will readers have on the subject? How familiar are they with the text(s)?"
For what purpose is the audience reading this writing?
Is the audience reading the paper to learn something? To be convinced of a position? To be entertained?The first two are likely purposes for writing an academic paper; the professor wants to learn what the writer thinks about the topic at hand and to be convinced that their position, the thesis, is well argued. Essay exams would, perhaps, be written for a specific purpose, to display an understanding of course material.
If the audience wishes to be entertained, however, then the paper's approach will be quite different. The story is probably more important than the research, though originality is paramount in both. Some academic writing can fall in this category; for more information, see our handbook on creative writing.
What level of information will readers have on the subject? How familiar are they with the text(s)?
When writing for a professor or even classmates, it is often safe to assume a level of familiarity with the topic at hand. For example, if one is writing about a novel that the entire class has read and is writing about, then the writer should almost never include a summary of the plot in the paper. If, however, they are writing a book review for a general audience that has most likely not yet read the book, then a summary would be appropriate. If the writer is unsure about which approach to take, they can always ask their professor.
In addition to knowledge about a text, the writer needs to consider the terminology they might want to use. Most disciplines have a specific set of terminology with which the audience may or may not be familiar. If writing for a professor or classmates, it is generally safe to use such terminology without explanation. If writing for a non-academic audience or a beginner-level audience, however, then it may be better to either exclude such terminology or to provide an explanation.
Checked & proofread, fall 2018, Griffin Myers, Writing Consultant