Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

Writing for Your Audience

Have you ever had one of those nightmares where you’ve been handed a test by a teacher, and it’s filled with terms you’ve never heard of, and it asks questions that you have no idea how to answer? Or maybe you’ve dreamed that you’ve received an email from your boss, and she’s demanding that you complete a bunch of tasks that you have no idea how to do?

Dreams like that are so stressful because they strike at a fear that we don’t know what we’re supposed to know or that we’ve been given tasks that were really meant for some other person, and we’re just unprepared to do them. The flip side of this is that we feel comfortable when we’re given test questions or job assignments, and we recognize the terminology. We understand the problems that we’re being asked to solve. In other words, it’s good when something written and the person reading it mesh together well.

It’s important in writing that the writer knows and understands his or her audience, and that the writer tailors what he or she writes for that audience. We have an instinctive understanding of this as readers, but what can be a little trickier is learning to do this as writers.

To ensure that you’re doing a good job of writing for your audience, there are four important points to keep in mind:

  1. What is the reader’s position with respect to you?
  2. What is the reader’s perspective? Does the reader have a particular role or position that makes him or her biased about the topic you’re writing about, for example?
  3. What level of knowledge does the reader have about your topic?
  4. What do you want your reader to take away from what you write?

What is the Reader’s Position?

As you probably already know from school, work and everyday life, it’s important to think about your reader’s position when you write something. And by position, I mean how that person is situated with respect to you.

It’s common sense to know that when we write a paper to submit to a teacher, we’re trying to demonstrate what we’ve learned in class. When we type up a proposal or even just an email to a boss at work, we’re trying to do our work well, because our job may depend on it. In each of these cases, we’re writing to our superior – our teacher or our boss is above us in some way, and the work that we write reflects that.

When writing something for a teacher or a boss, you should write in a formal tone. In writing, tone is a term we often use to describe our attitude toward our subject matter. A writer’s tone comes across in the types of words he or she chooses. For example, in a very formal essay, it’s not a good idea to use contractions, and we shouldn’t use informal words like ‘guy’ or ‘kid’ or conversational phrases like ‘tons of.’

Because you’ll usually be trying to impress a teacher or a boss with what you write, you should take care to write using a formal tone, to edit and proofread your work carefully, and to be sure that you’ve fully answered whatever questions you’ve been asked.

The rules are quite different, of course, if you’re sending a quick text message to a close friend. When you’re texting a friend, contractions, conversational language, and even emoticons are fine. When writing, it’s crucial to remember who your audience is and to tailor your writing style for that audience.

What is the Reader’s Perspective?

It’s also a good idea to be aware of your reader’s general perspective on an issue when you write. For example, many people have an opinion on the issue of whether high school students should be allowed to bring their cell phones into the classroom, and their opinions are often determined by their perspectives – by who they are.

Many teenagers would support or oppose the idea of being allowed to bring cell phones to class simply on the basis of whether having a cell phone in class would benefit them. We could probably expect that the idea would be pretty popular among high school kids, but many teachers, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t like the idea too much if they don’t want a bunch of distracted kids in their classrooms.

So if you were to write an essay in which you argued in favor of high school students being allowed to have cell phones in class, that essay would be quite different depending on whether you were writing for an audience of high school students or teachers. And that’s because we know that the members of those two groups have their own interests in mind.

So if you were to write in favor of allowing cell phones in high school classrooms and your audience were a group of teachers, you’d have to come up with ways that teachers could benefit from that policy. You would have to make an appeal to that group’s interests. You might argue, for example, that in the wake of so many violent incidents in schools, allowing students to have cell phones is a basic matter of safety. Clearly, though, a group of teachers would be a much tougher crowd to convince on this issue than a group of high schoolers would be.

What Level of Knowledge Does the Reader Have?

Think back to our nightmare situation from earlier – about having panic-inducing bad dreams about trying to take a test but not understanding any of the words on the sheet or about your boss sending you an email about work that you don’t understand.

You definitely don’t want your audience’s reaction to be horror when they read an essay you’ve written. (There are, of course, exceptions, but we’ll save ‘How to Write an Effective Vampire Essay’ for another day.)

To prevent a scary reaction on the part of your reader, you should take into account what your reader knows about your topic as you write. The reader’s knowledge of your subject might depend in part on his or her age or level of education, for example.

Think about what background information your reader might need to be brought up to speed on your topic. Are there any facts, processes or techniques that need to be explained? Any terms that need to be defined?

Let’s say that you’re writing about what a lawyer needs to do to get a photograph admitted into evidence during a trial.

If your audience were a lawyer that hadn’t ever had to do that yet, you could use plenty of legal terminology and simply lay out the steps for him or her. If your reader were a law student, you could probably use most legal terminology safely, but when you describe the steps, you’d need to use a bit more context for what would likely be an unfamiliar situation.

And if your reader were a layperson – someone with no legal background – you would have to start with some background information, explaining why following the rules very strictly would be important. You would have to explain each step in detail, and you would have to define a number of legal terms.

Even in situations where the differences in knowledge levels of your potential audience aren’t so varied, you should consider who will be reading your essay so that you’ll know the right amount of space to devote to filling in background, explaining concepts and defining terms without confusing your reader or wasting too much space.

What Do You Want Your Reader to Take Away?

As you write an essay – or any piece of writing – you’ll need to think about what you want your reader to take away from what you write. And there are really two layers to this point.

First, of course, is that you want to fulfill your basic purpose. You might want to inform your reader about how the electoral college works, for example. Or maybe you need to let your supervisor at work know about what parts of a project have been completed. Or, borrowing our idea from before, perhaps you are trying to persuade your school’s faculty and administration that students bringing cell phones to class is a fantastic idea.

To inform, to persuade, or to entertain – those are examples of primary objectives, or purposes, and to meet those objectives, you’ll need to think carefully about who your readers are and what their positions are, what your readers’ perspectives might be and what level of knowledge your readers have about your subject matter.

But there’s an important secondary objective that underlies much of what you will write, which is just as important as your primary objective. That secondary objective has to do with achieving what you want your reader to think about you based on your writing.

We all want our readers to come away from reading what we’ve written with a positive impression of us. If you’ve written a research memo for your boss, you want her to be informed by it and to form the opinion that you’re a wonderful, valuable employee. If you’ve written an informative or persuasive essay for your teacher, you want him to be struck by how talented and meticulous a writer you are and by how much you know.

So how do you accomplish the secondary objective of making your reader think well of you based on what you’ve written? You’ll have to pay particular attention to using all of the writing skills in your arsenal. Those skills would include effective organization, the use of details to support your main points and thorough editing.

Remember that in addition to informing, persuading or entertaining your reader, you may also have the added task of demonstrating all that you know about your subject and that you’re a good writer (when writing an essay for a teacher). Or you might be trying to show how organized and creative you are (if your audience is your boss) and you’ve written a problem-solving proposal for her.

Lesson Summary

When you’re working to write effectively for a particular audience, keep in mind the following four points:

  1. What is the reader’s position with respect to you?
  2. What is the reader’s perspective?
  3. What level of knowledge does the reader have about your topic?
  4. What do you want your reader to take away from what you write?

Remember also that you’ll have a primary objective when you’re writing for a particular audience. That primary objective might be to inform, to persuade or to entertain.

There’s a secondary objective at work, too, and that’s achieving what you want your reader to think about you based on your writing.

Consider the characteristics and needs of your particular readers as you work to create the right impression for those readers.

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