3.4 Knowing Your Audience: Values and Beliefs

Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Nancy Ami; and Natalie Boldt

Most people know intuitively that the same type of writing isn’t appropriate for every situation. To use a simple example, you might write a text to a friend that looks something like this:

Hey, that assignment for POLI 202 when is it due LOL?

This text seems fine. That is, your friend would likely see “Hey” as an appropriate greeting, maybe even as a polite way to begin a text. The LOL isn’t meant to express laughter but show camaraderie. The basic idea here is that you want to confirm the deadline for an upcoming assignment for a political science class. You have reached out to someone in that class for clarification. In fact, this text respects your friend by assuming they are busy and would appreciate a quick message rather than an email or some other form of communication. You have made it easy for this friend to send back the due date, to which you might reply “Thx” as an expression of appreciation. Maybe you could even reply with a smiley-face emoji.

But if you want information about a deadline from your course instructor, it would be less fitting to email the same text. In this situation, you would more likely write something like the following:

Dear Professor Mirza,

I am a student in your 10:30 am section of POLI 202 (Intro to Political Theory). I know that our second essay assignment is due next week, but I need to ask for clarification about the deadline. The course syllabus I have says this assignment needs to be submitted on Monday at noon, but the course site says the submission date is Wednesday at noon. Would you please tell me the actual deadline? Thank you for your help.

Stu Dent

Notice the difference between the text and the email? The formal greeting and use of complete sentences signal that you are aware this email is being exchanged in a professional and academic context. This email also makes some assumptions about its reader. Because this person (an instructor who might teach several courses and hundreds of students in a term) might not know who you are, which class you’re asking about, or which assignment you are asking about, you need to offer that information. Since this instructor and you are likely busy, you keep your email reasonably brief and to the point – but you also need to show respect for the instructor’s time by suggesting you have tried other ways of getting the information you need before asking for help. This all builds your credibility with your instructor, and shows that you have understood the rhetorical situation.

This is all well and good, but audiences for academic assignments can be, as we said earlier, tricky.

3.4.1 Who Is the Audience for My Academic Writing Assignments?

When you think about the audience for an academic assignment that you need to write for a class, it might seem obvious who your reader is: The instructor who will be grading the assignment. Indeed, the person marking your work will be reading it with great care and attention. But that doesn’t mean the instructor as an individual person is identical to your audience.

More often, your course instructor stands in for a larger audience. Depending on the course level and subject matter and the assignment parameters, your instructor could be a representative of one of these groups of readers:

An educated audience with some interest in the topic you are writing about. This type of audience is not made up of specialists in a field, such as biology or political science. They want an overview of a topic with little to no jargon. These types of assignments are often the domain of survey courses, which are usually found in the first and second year of study.

An audience of specialists in the field you are writing about. This audience has expertise in a particular area and more specialized language and knowledge is expected. These types of assignments are found in upper year courses or even graduate school (think dissertation chapters or an honours essay).

In either case, the person grading isn’t going to think primarily about whether they personally agree with or like your work. Instead, they are considering how this piece of writing fits within disciplinary norms and standards. In a history research essay, for example, your reader likely expects to see notes and a bibliography. That is, the person grading your assignment is looking to see how your work meets academic audience expectations.

Of course “academic” is a big category, and not all academic audiences are the same. Historians tend to produce lengthy articles and even entire books so that they have space to replicate and analyze the details of primary source documents. Physicists write and publish much shorter articles packed with tables, numbers, and graphs that convey a lot of information in a condensed space (to those who know how to understand them). Both groups care about truth and accuracy and highly value new knowledge, but the writing they produce takes different forms. If this is at all confusing to you, then please return to Section 2.3 Academic Writing as a Genre for a refresher.

So, how might you better understand the instructor who will be reading your work as a stand-in for a larger audience? The answer is to visit their office hours and ask for samples of student essays that met their expectations. You might also ask what journals or readings your instructor recommends as examples of writing in that particular field. Your instructor is an expert in whatever field you might be majoring in – they are your best source for an academic audience analysis.

Academic writing around the world differs in terms of style and conventions but shares a key feature: careful consideration of audience. As you gain an understanding of your readers, drawing on the guidelines, steps, and perspectives we’ve shared here, you will be better equipped for your next steps with your composition.

3.4.2 Audience Analysis for Writing

Even if you get comfortable with the idea that your course instructor stands in for a larger audience, there will be times in your academic career that require you to write for a different type of audience. Perhaps you have applied for a bursary or scholarship or you may have applied for co-op positions or internships. In these situations, thinking about who you were writing for likely helped your application along. Audience matters.

Right now, we (the authors of this textbook) are writing to undergraduate students, primarily those in the first year of university. Most of us have taught or supported first year students for a shocking number of years (a combined total of over one hundred). Therefore, we have some understanding of our audience, but we don’t make assumptions. We read current research about the first year writing experience. We also ask students to tell us what they think of this textbook. In other words, we analyze our audience so we can meet their needs. We hope you feel included in this textbook rather than disappointed, alienated, or even bored, which is what happens when writers do not consider their audience.

Here’s your opportunity to learn a crucial skill to becoming an effective writer: audience analysis. The questions listed here will help you to analyze an audience so that you can, in turn, tailor your writing to suit your intended readers. In some ways, you are being asked to think creatively in order to position yourself as different types of people who make up an audience. Putting yourself in others’ shoes in an informed manner is an important part of rhetorical practice. Let’s give it a try by engaging with the following questions (if you really want to get the most from this exercise, write down your answers):

Can you imagine your writing being published in a particular venue (like a magazine, a newspaper, a trade newsletter, a website, an academic journal, etc.)? If so, who are the readers of this publication?

Can you imagine your writing being presented orally as a talk at a conference or convention? If so, what is the focus of the conference or convention? What sorts of people are likely to attend this event?

Can you imagine your writing being assigned as a reading for a university class? If so, what class? In what department, at what level? What sorts of people would teach this class, and who might take it?

If your writing was published on a general news website (like CBC.ca), under what section would it be filed (local news, national news, world news, sports, science and technology, entertainment, arts, health, or what)? What sorts of people read that section of a news website?

If your writing were a post on Reddit, what would be the name of the subreddit in which it appears? What sorts of people or communities post in this subreddit? Is there specialized language (such as slang) that they use?

Once you define the audience for the above rhetorical situations, then use your answers to define a target group. Try to be as specific as possible. What did you come up with?

Now you are ready for the next step. You are going to refine your audience even further. (Again, you might want to write down your answers to these questions.) You might be surprised what you discover about audiences (your readers) and their expectations! Based on the target group you defined above think about what the demographics are for this group or the economic profile. What type of education do they have? What other relevant information can you think of to better define this group?

If you’ve answered the above questions, you likely have a good idea of who your target audience is for your assignment or written work. But there are still some questions that need to be answered about your target audience before you can start writing. Don’t worry, this won’t take long but WILL improve your writing:

What does your audience already know about the topic on which you are writing? What will be new to them? What might be difficult for them to understand?

Does your audience already have a position on the topic you are addressing? Do they basically agree with the argument you want to make, or will they disagree (or might they even be hostile)?

Does your audience have particular values or interests to which you can appeal? What do they seem likely to think is important or trivial, fascinating or boring?

Does your audience expect the sort of piece you are writing to follow particular conventions? If so, what conventions might those be (for example, if you are writing a blog post, perhaps your audience expects links, headings and other online writing conventions).

Does your audience know anything about you? Is there anything you can do to build credibility with this audience?

Want to be a more effective writer? You help yourself make sound choices about how to shape a piece of writing for its intended readers if you jot down answers to these questions before you start drafting (or at least revising). And simply thinking about these questions can help to guide your decisions about what to put in, what to emphasize, and what to leave out in your writing.

3.4.3 Audience & Context: Observations from a Writing Centre

What does it mean to write for an audience in differing cultural contexts? The way you fashion an argument for an audience can stem from the cultures you and your audiences were raised within. Writing centres are a good place to turn to when thinking about audience and context. Writing centre staff work with writers from a variety of cultures. Here we want to give you some insight into the many ways that academic writing is practiced in cultural contexts to meet readers’ expectations. In almost every cultural context encountered at a writing centre (and there are many), writers need to understand the expectations of their readers.

What do we mean when we say writers have cultural knowledge of their readers? How does this knowledge of their readers shape writers’ expectations and influence their writing? Let’s look at three hypothetical examples that might speak to cultural differences in academic writing.

Before expressing a particular argument, some writers provide extensive historical background on their topics. They present pages of contextual information highlighting key researchers and their findings. These writers do not cite any sources for the information they have written. They know their readers respect traditions and value research done before; they expect their readers to know the sources. Writers do not need to explain where the information comes from. If they did, they would be dismissing their readers’ expertise.

Another group of writers present their argument near the beginning of their text. In their paragraphs, these writers explore topics related to their argument. The paragraphs start off with a sentence or two on the related topic. Then, the paragraphs grow longer as writers explore background information, draw in related narratives, and perhaps share a joke or two to keep the readers engaged. The paragraphs may be pages in length and are chock full of fascinating information. While some of this information relates to the initial claim, much of it is tangential. The writers know their readers want to be engaged and entertained while they are tracing the argument. These writers expect the reader to appreciate the lengthy discussion and colorful, creative material included. They trust their readers will pull out the argument snippets as they meander through the copious text sections.

Other writers place their argument at their paper’s beginning and offer support through paragraphs. These writers assume their readers are acquainted with paragraph formatting routines and so do not need to identify new paragraphs. Writers align their text with the left margin. They do not indent where they start a new paragraph nor do they double-space after each paragraph. These writers expect their readers to closely read their paragraphs and track where the main ideas change without relying on changes in format or spacing to help them.

As you read the descriptions above, did you find yourself nodding in agreement with an approach or two? What have you noticed about academic writers’ routines and assumptions when writing for North American readers, particularly course instructors as representative readers?

As writers, we (that’s all of us who write academically) want our readers to be able to follow our ideas. In the North American context, the burden is on writers to clearly convey ideas to readers, so the university’s writing centre staff will often urge you to research your reader. What can you assume your reader knows? How hard will your reader need to work on understanding your argument? What (if any) changes will you need to make in your academic writing? Again, the guidelines above for audience analysis help you investigate your reader and carefully consider how knowing your reader impacts your writing – your process and your product.


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Why Write? A Guide for Students in Canada Copyright © 2020 by Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Nancy Ami; and Natalie Boldt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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