I have an assignment, now what?

Writing for an Audience


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Imagine that you recently had a car accident and you were partially responsible. If you had to write and tell your parents about the accident, what might you say? Imagine how you might tell the story differently if you were telling your friends about what happened. How might this version be different from the one you tell the insurance company? What details would you emphasize? Are there some details you might tell your friends that you might not emphasize or even mention at all in your letter to your parents or the insurance company? Would the order in which you told the various details be different? As you can see, this illustrates the way that we customize our writing to appeal to a specific audience.

Assignments are often designed with a particular audience in mind. For example, if you are writing a business or legal memo, your intended audience is probably people with whom you work, perhaps your boss or your co-workers. If you are writing a proposal of some sort, the intended audience may be a professional but not someone with whom you are intimately acquainted. Just as what you say to your parents and friends might be different than what you say to the insurance company, what and how you report information may vary depending on the audience.

Why is my Audience Important?
Knowing your audience helps you to make decisions about what information you should include, how you should arrange that information, and what kind of supporting details will be necessary for the reader to understand what you are presenting. It also influences the tone and structure of the document. In order to develop and present an effective argument, you need to be able to appeal to and address your audience. 

When writing an academic paper, try to remember that your instructor is not the only member of your audience. Although the instructor is often the only person who will read the finished product, customizing a paper to his or her level of knowledge can run the risk of leaving out important information, since many instructors know far more about your topic than the average reader would. In addition, omitting information that your instructor already knows can result in a weak or unbalanced paper. However, if you assume that your reader is less knowledgeable than you, you are likely to provide more details and better explanations, which usually results in a much stronger paper. 

While it is important to consider your instructor’s needs when writing your papers, especially if he or she specifies particular requirements that you must meet, you should consider whether there is a specific intended audience for your assignment. This handout is designed to help you understand the importance of audience and determine what your audience needs to know to follow your ideas.

In order to effectively plan your assignment, you need to figure out who your audience is and what specific needs they might have. The best place to begin is your assignment handout. Look to see if your professor specified an intended audience. If not, you might ask whether your instructor if there is a particular intended reader for the assignment. Common audiences include the following:

  • Generalized Group of Readers: Sometimes your audience is just a generalized group of readers. For example, your assignment might specify something like this: “Assume that your classmates are your audience.” Generally, this means that your readers are college educated and know about as much (or as little) as you do on the subject. These readers will need you to provide some background information, as well as examples and illustrations to help them understand what you are presenting.