Writer's WebTaking Audience into Account
by Kathleen Lietzau
(printable version here)

One of the most important things to take into account when writing your paper is who your audience is. Is it your professor, your classmates, an administrator, the general public, or just yourself? Each of these audiences would require a different approach in terms of what information to include, how your ideas are organized, and even what sort of language to use.

Determining Your Audience

When attempting to determine the audience of your paper, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is my primary audience?
  • For what purpose is my audience reading my writing?
  • What level of information will they have on the subject? How familiar are they with my text(s)?
  • In what context will they be reading my writing?

Who is my primary audience?

For the vast majority of academic papers, the simple answer to this question is "my professor." If you look carefully at the assignment, however, you may see clues that indicate a broader, or simply different, audience.

For example, your professor may state in the prompt that you should be writing for 5th graders or for your fellow classmates. For 5th graders, you may want to use a simpler vocabulary and shorter sentences. For your fellow students, however, there is probably advanced terminology and a certain level of knowledge and understanding of the topic that you can assume, and thus you 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 my text(s)?"

For what purpose is my audience reading my writing?

Is the audience reading your paper to learn something? To be convinced of a position? To be entertained? To know that you understand what you have been taught in class? The first two are likely purposes for writing an academic paper; your professor wants to learn what you think about the topic at hand and to be convinced that your position, your thesis, is well argued. Essay exams would, perhaps, be written for the last purpose, to display an understanding of course material.

If the audience wishes to be entertained, however, then your 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 my text(s)?

When writing for your professor or even your classmates, it is often safe to assume a level of familiarity with the topic at hand. For example, if you are writing about a novel that the entire class has read and is writing about, then you should almost never include a summary of the plot in your paper. If, however, you 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 you are unsure about which approach to take, ask your professor.

In addition to knowledge about a text, you need to consider the terminology you might want to use. Most disciplines have a specific set of terminology with which your audience may or may not be familiar. If writing for your 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.

In what context will they be reading my writing?

Context is important when considering your approach. For instance, is your paper supposed to stand alone? Is it to be included in a collection of essays? Is it an article for a newspaper, magazine, journal, or even an online publisher? This context can help you to determine everything including format, page length, the amount of explanatory information to provide, and the tone to use.

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