Writing AdviceWriting, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2008

The Factor of Audience

Imagine the following scenario: you have been asked to compose an essay about your life that your children will someday read. What would you say? How would you say it? What details would you include knowing that it would only be read by your children?

Now imagine that you have been given the same task, only this time the essay would be published in a national magazine. Knowing that this essay would be read by your friends and family—as well as by your employer, your peers, and by perfect strangers—how would it differ from the first one? Would the details be different? Would your tone change? Would you leave out a few details for the sake of possible embarrassment or misunderstanding?

In each case, the audience of your work made a difference in how you write. In fact, one of the first things you learn as a writer is the factor of audience. Regardless of the genre, style, or purpose of your writing, consideration of audience is vital in writing effectively. In the above scenarios, your tone, choice of words, and depth of intimacy in your writing would probably differ between the two essays—although both were basically on the same topic. In a similar sense, having an understanding of your audience before you approach any writing task is crucial to a successful outcome.

This fact is often most difficult for academic writing. If you are writing as a class assignment, then the obvious audience for your work will be your professor (or TA, or class peers). Let's take, for example, an assignment on Shakespeare's poetic techniques. You are aware that your professor is a preeminent Shakespearian scholar, so there is no need to explain the terminology you mention within your writing, or the credentials of your resources used—right?

Not so fast. While academic writing assignments do assume a certain level of knowledge with the topic, if you fail to follow through with your arguments and explanations in a concise and thorough way, your professor could see it as a weakness in your writing. This is especially true of most undergraduate-level writing, as professors tend to want to see your ability to explain your thesis, rather than your ability to astound them with your relevant and innovative slant on the topic. However, academic writing for dissertations and future publication in academic journals is slightly different. In these cases, it is generally safe to assume that your audience is familiar with the basics of the topic, requiring less explanation on your part of the commonly known terms and/or theories.

In other forms of writing—particularly creative writing—audience should always be your first consideration before putting pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard). If you are writing an article, short story, or novel for hopes of future publication, knowing your audience will be the most important part of the process—outside of good writing, of course. Many writers even use the factor of audience as a springboard for coming up with the content, rather than the other way around. They might find a particular niche or magazine that is looking for fresh content, and then later decide upon a topic after researching the intended audience. For example, a regional magazine that focuses on rural living would have a readership interested in all facets of country life. A writer seeking publication within this magazine would consider the readership, read past articles published by the magazine to determine the reading level of the readership, then come up with a concept and topic accordingly. In this situation, an article about heirloom recipes or seasonal gardens would definitely be chosen for publication over one about public transportation or urban schools.

Editors should consider audience as thoroughly as writers should—if not more so. One of the first things an editor will deliberate when reading a manuscript for possible publication is whether or not there will be an audience for that book or article, and if so, does it give them what they want? Editors are trained to know what people want to read, and generally have a good eye in determining if a particular writer hits the mark. They will edit your manuscript or rough draft accordingly, and offer suggestions for changes that might broaden your audience (for more sales) or help you in relating better to a specific age group or gender.

When you are editing your own work, the easiest way to factor in your audience is to read it as if you were your own reader, rather than the writer. While this sounds easier said than done, it is really just a matter of stepping back from your writing. Usually this is best done if you wait a day or two after you've finished writing, and then read it with your reader in mind. Ask yourself the following questions: "If I were reading this for the first time, would I be confused about something?" and "Is this something I would be interested in reading if I were a (insert your audience here)?"

Considering your audience is a mixture of marketing and psychology. You must first question who would be your reader, and then question if they would identify with, or enjoy reading, your work. If you take the time to brainstorm these details before you even begin writing, you'll save yourself a lot of time and energy by zeroing in on the perfect tone and topic for your intended audience.
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