Understanding Your Audience

Before you begin, think about your audience. For whom are you writing? A reader is on the receiving end of your writing, and you should keep that reader in mind.

Student writers sometimes think that their audience is an instructor who will be impressed by big words and long sentences. But most teachers know good, clear writing when they see it. And they can easily distinguish between solid content and inflated trivia. If you have little to say but dress it up in overblown prose with perfect punctuation, you won't fare as well as someone who has something substantive to say and says it clearly, even with a few mechanical errors.

The purpose of your writing and the audience for whom you're writing are closely related. If you're writing a letter to a snowboarding magazine praising a new board, you'll use different language and tone than you would in a college research paper about the European Union's gradual move toward a single currency. Though both audiences will be interested in what you write and want to understand it, they'll expect and respond to different styles.

Think carefully about your audience before you begin. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Are you writing for people in a particular field, such as psychology, literature, engineering, or genetics? Can you assume the reader has knowledge of the terminology and concepts you'll use, or do you need to define them in the paper? Will you need to provide extensive background information on the subject, or will a summary be enough?

  • What expectations does your audience have? An audience of marine biologists will have different expectations from an article on marine biology than will a general audience, for example.

  • Are you writing for someone who insists on certain writing practices or who has pet peeves? One instructor may require a five‐paragraph essay; another may forbid the use of intentional sentence fragments. Be aware of requirements or restrictions related to grammar, punctuation, and usage.

  • What is the reading level of your audience? Instructions and explanations written for sixth‐graders shouldn't include college‐level vocabulary, for example.

  • Are you writing for an audience that is likely to agree or disagree with your point of view? Consider this question if you're writing an argumentative or persuasive piece. It can make a difference in the language you select, the amount of proof you offer, and the tone you use. For example, an editorial for a small‐town paper on the importance of family values is less likely to encounter resistance from readers than an editorial on legalizing drugs.