In Search of an Audience

    You're at a movie. It has been billed as a comedy—in fact, a romantic comedy. You're expecting something funny and a bit sensual, hopefully with a little feel-good sappy scene at the end. You want to laugh, to sigh sweetly . . . to get a little gushy with your date. 

    And then the feature presentation begins. There are explosions, guns, some miscellany about a bad narcotics deal and someone smuggling freon through Savannah, GA. A retro-Mr. T character scowls and babbles about his quest to bring justice to America. Your date says, "I thought we were going to see something funny." 

    What's your reaction? 
    Do you feel used and lied to? 
    Do you deserve a refund? 
    Do you feel like you might not be the audience this film was intended to delight? 

    When you write a paper, your readers should not feel as if they deserve a refund; it's crucial that you take your audience into account. 

    Is Anyone out There?

    In an essay written for a class, your audience could be yourself, your instructor, your classmates, the general public—or any or all of the above. Sometimes your audience may be determined for you; other times, you could be asked to choose an audience yourself. (When in doubt, ask your instructor.) You'll need to make sure that the audience you choose to address will be responsive to the essay form. And you'll have to consider what attitudes and assumptions potential audience members will bring with them to your essay—and how you'll need to adapt to their expectations. 

    If your audience for an essay advocating the enforcement of quiet hours in your dorm is the people on your floor, you can expect them to share certain knowledge and assumptions with you. However, if you're also writing the paper for the general public, you'll have to explain the current situation on your dorm floor--your suitemate, who incessantly blasts Rage Against the Machine from dawn to midnight; the people in the TV lounge, who feel the need to scream obscenities at the guests on The Ricki Lake Show; the people on the floor above yours, who are fond of playing basketball in the halls at 2 a.m. 

    What if there are people in your audience who've never lived in a dormitory? You may need to explain to them why there would be a need for "quiet hours" to begin with. If your audience also includes your instructor, there are some additional considerations. For example, what writing techniques does your instructor expect you to use? What skills does he or she expect you to demonstrate? What about practical considerations like format and length? 

    Why Bother?

    Maybe you're thinking, "Audience, schmaudience. I'm the writer, after all. Who cares what other people think?" However, writer and audience are inextricably linked: whether you're writing for yourself, as in a diary, or for a vast and cold audience, such as the American public, that work can always be an act of communicative discovery. Writing is communication; its very nature is to reach outward from the writer to someone else, whether another body or another sense of your own self. In any case, the act of writing can, when effective, teach your audience, be that audience you or someone else. 

    As a writer, you have a responsibility to be aware of your audience. It follows, then, that the more aware of your audience you are, the more effective your communication will be. You should try to know for whom you are writing. 

    Three Tips 

    (Adapted from Linda Flower's Problem-Solving Strategies for Writing, Fourth Edition)
    1. Find out who your reader will be. If you have more than one, decide which audience is primary. Which reader or kind of reader will your paper be designed primarily for? (Some factors to consider: age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, religious beliefs, political stance, and educational level.)
    2. Then begin to explore what you know about your readers' knowledge, attitudes, and needs. What assumptions about your topic will your readers bring to the paper? What will your readers need to know about your topic? 
    3. Then plan how you are going to close the gap between you and your reader to make your paper effective. What opposing viewpoints will you need to address? What will you need to explain in order for your audience to fully understand your argument? 

    Three More Tips

    Following are three questions you can ask yourself when you are trying to determine your audience. Through the process of answering them you can find your audience: 

    1. Who needs to hear what I have to say?
    2. Of the above people, who hasn't heard this before?
    3. Now of these people, who will think an essay is an appropriate medium of expression?
    This process should help you thoroughly narrow your audience and create a more potent and directed essay. 

    An Exercise for Practice 

    Look at an essay you've already written, identifying your audience. Think about how the essay would have to change to accommodate a different audience. 

    For example, how would you transform a paper written for a philosophy class into . . . 

    • a review for a leftist political magazine? 
    • an article for your campus newspaper?
    • a speech to be given to an assembly of junior high school students? 
    • an item for a church newsletter?
    • a letter to your best friend?