Determining Your Audience

For whom are you writing your paper? Who will read it? The audience is the reader or readers of your paper--in other words, those who will care what your paper has to say. Obviously your instructor cares what you have to say, but you need to think about your audience in terms of the larger scholarly and professional community. One of the major differences in undergraduate and graduate school is that you are now considered to have joined a community of scholars with whom you join in dialogue on questions of mutual interest. It follows that the members of this community, be it faculty, writers, archivists, or social scientists, have become your audience, and you need to focus your writing towards these readers.

Recognizing the audience for your paper is extremely important, because how you will present your findings will vary depending on who is reading it, their academic and professional background, and their academic and professional background relative to yours. In other words, you will have a much greater chance of convincing them that your argument is valid if you appeal to your audience on their terms. This does NOT mean telling your audience what they want to hear, but rather telling them, in a relevant context they will appreciate, what they ought to know about your topic and why they should care to learn about it. You need to write in a manner that will make the best case for your insights, and that at the same time demonstrates collegiality and respect for the body of scholarship that has preceded your contribution and to which you are adding your voice.

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To help you determine your audience and shift the focus of your writing towards the reader, ask yourself the following questions as the first step in any writing task, regardless of length, complexity, or style.

1. Purpose

  • Why am I writing this? - If you've followed the advice from "Understanding the Assignment," you should be able to determine this quite easily. Still, frequently reminding yourself can help you determine answers to the following questions:
    • What do I want the reader to do?
    • What do I want him or her to go away knowing or thinking about?

2. Audience

  • Who is my reader? Do I have more than one?
  • What is the reader’s role?
  • What does the reader already know about the subject? What background or context do I need to provide?
  • How will the reader react?
  • What’s in it for the reader? Why should the reader read this, agree with it, or consider it further?
  • How will the reader use this document?

3. Bottom Line

  • If the reader were to forget everything else, what one key point do I want remembered?

How exactly can you go about writing for your audience once you have determined who that is? You communicate to your audience through several different paths when you write. One of those is through your sources. For example, if you are writing a paper on industrialization in 19th century England for an English class, you would probably appeal to your audience better using Dickens and other literature of the period than by consulting economic theory books.

In an interdisciplinary program, this choice of sources gets a little bit trickier - you need to provide sources from a strategic variety of disciplines. By strategic, we mean that the sources you choose should work together to provide a paper greater than the sum of its parts; in other words, the point of an interdisciplinary paper is not just to show what a few different disciplines have to say on a subject, but rather to show how the intersection of those different perspectives creates a new insight that can more fully address the research question.



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