Thinking About Audience and Purpose Help

Updated on Sep 7, 2011

Understanding Your Audience

Imagine that you've been asked to write about your life-saving experience for the local hospital newsletter. You expect your audience to be adults, so you plan and draft your article in anticipation of that audience. But when you submit it, you find that the hospital plans to use your article in a supplement for elementary school students. Can they print it as written? Not if they want their readers to understand what you've written.

Understanding your audience is a critical component of effective writing. Before you begin any type of essay, you must find out:

  1. Who will read your essay and why are they reading it?
  2. What do they know about your subject?
  3. What is your relationship with the reader?

Pinpointing Your Audience

If you're writing for a teacher, you know his or her name and face, as well as the expectations he or she has for your writing. But determining your audience doesn't always mean knowing exactly who will be reading, grading, or scoring your essay. In fact, often you'll need to write for someone, or a number of people, you'll never meet. For example, if you are taking the ACT or SAT, you know that two people will read your essay and score it. You also know the criteria for each score. You don't know the readers' names, or where they're from, but you know enough about what they're looking for to understand how to write to them. Knowing your audience in this case means knowing what they're looking for.

In other words, your readers will pick up your writing in order to give it a grade or score. You need to know their expectations in order to fulfill them. What does your English teacher consider an A essay? How does a college admissions officer judge an essay? For the SAT and ACT, what does the scoring rubric look like? What are the differences between an essay that gets a 6, and one that gets a 2? Here are some general guidelines:

Pinpointing Your Audience

Here's an example. Imagine that you have been asked to write about a poem. Clearly, you could not write the same essay for a college application and an English Literature AP exam. You have two different sets of actual readers who want two very different things from you.

Admissions officers, for example, would prefer a very personal response to the poem, one that reveals something about who you are and what is important to you. They might want to know if the poem helps you better understand something about yourself and your values. They might want to know how you understand the poem. What does it mean to you? How does it make you feel? What do you get out of it? How can you relate it to your life?

The Audience's Relationship to the Subject

In addition, it's essential to consider the relationship of your audience to your subject.What are they likely to know about your topic? How interested will they be in what you have to say? How likely are they to agree or disagree with your ideas?

What Your Readers Know about the Subject

One of the biggest mistakes writers make is to assume that their readers know what they're talking about. Just because you know your subject intimately doesn't mean your readers do. You need to carefully consider how much your readers may know about your subject. For example, you've decided to write about your interest in robotics for your college application essay. If you use terms like "range weighted Hough Transform" and "sensor fusion algorithm," chances are your readers won't know what you're talking about. You'll either have to explain your terms or replace the technical jargon with words the average reader can understand.

Similarly, say you decide to write about your favorite novel. Should you assume your readers have read the novel? If they have, should you assume that they read it recently enough to remember its characters, plot, and themes? Unless you know for sure, or unless your assignment specifically mentions an assumption ("assume your readers have read The Great Gatsby carefully"), you must provide sufficient background information for your readers. You'll need to briefly summarize the plot and provide context for the specific scenes and issues you'd like to discuss.

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