Audience Demystified

By Chrissine Rios, MA, Purdue University Global Writing Center

A common time to teach “audience” to students is during the revision stage of the writing process: “Draft for yourself, and rewrite for the reader,” say a great many writing tutors and instructors. The same goes for long-windedness and correctness: “First express your ideas, and then edit your words,” say many writing experts. Ever since the early 1980s when Peter Elbow wrote about the importance of prewriting as a distinct phase in the writing process, writing has popularly been taught as a recursive process, and not a micro-recursive process where a writer critiques while writing and rewrites before writing more but a process having recursive stages where in each stage writers give concentrated attention to certain aspects of the writing.


“The Recursive Stages of the Writing Process” [PowerPoint Slide]. Adapted from Learn to Edit and Proofread presented by Chrissine Rios (2015). KUWC Writing Workshops

The prewriting stage, for instance, is for invention—coming up with ideas, questions, and plans.

During drafting, writers generate a discussion having a beginning, middle, and end; a thesis or theme; supporting details and evidence; reflection; analysis.

Then during revision, writers step back and re-see the main idea(s) and revise to bring them more into focus, and this stage, along with the editing stage, is where taking audience into consideration helps writers revise and edit to more intentionally appeal to the readers.

However, at this point in the writing process, the writer should already have a sense of the intended audience for the chosen topic and for the purpose of the writing. Together, the audience, topic, and purpose are what make the writing a form of communication, which is the goal of writing academically, to communicate. In order to communicate effectively, writers have to think about what they are writing and why and for whom. All three of these elements should be considered at the beginning and during every stage of the writing process because they are together what makes the writing situation.

Audience, the paper’s topic, and the writer’s purpose are the writing situation.

“The Writing Situation” [MS Word SmartArt] by Chrissine Rios (2016) for the KU Academic Support Center

“The Writing Situation” [MS Word SmartArt] by Chrissine Rios (2016) for the Purdue University Global Academic Support Center

During tutoring sessions, I’ve asked students who the intended audience is, and one common answer is the “general public” or “society at large.” This is a good place to begin thinking about audience and how it influences what and why writers write.

To reach a general audience, writers will want to take a broad view of the topic and use plain vocabulary and syntax, so the writing is relevant and readable to diverse people. Most academic readers, however, will find such general discussions lackluster because they assume the reader doesn’t know anything. In most cases, the topic and purpose of a college-level paper will be better suited for an audience having college-level literacy skills, so the writer can best demonstrate his or her own college-level literacy skills and college-level learning.

Narrowing the audience helps the academic writer be more specific and develop ideas with more depth because narrowing the audience increases the shared common knowledge between the writer and readers. When students think of an academic audience, however, they will often go too narrow and only consider the professor. Especially when the professor assigns a specific topic and purpose for the writing project, students will be inclined to write only for the professor in response.

On the up side, students who consider the audience the professor will usually write within the parameters of the assignment requirements and strive for correct usage of standard American English and academic style. On the down side, writing for such a narrow audience as a highly educated professor who already knows more than the writer about the topic, can be very nerve-wracking; nothing will sound right to the writer, so it won’t sound right to the reader either.

The most effective academic writing I see is written for an educated audience within the student’s discipline of study or specific field because this is where the assignment will also usually situate the topic. I’ve learned from tutoring writing, however, that not all students automatically consider others in their field of study–other interested learners, educators, or professionals in the field—the intended readers. Helping the student see themselves within a discourse community in which their writing is adding to the body of knowledge on a topic is an important and fairly quick lesson to relay, and it can make all the difference in the student also knowing how to narrow the focus of topic and define a clearer purpose.

The narrower the audience, the more the writer can and must know the topic and express a clear purpose.

“Audience from General to Specific” [MS Word SmartArt] by Chrissine Rios (2016) for the KU ASC

“Narrowing Audience” [MS Word SmartArt] by Chrissine Rios (2016) for the Purdue University Global Academic Support Center

Some of the best student writing I see is in response to assignments that identify an intended audience in the directions: the business letter assignment, the proposal, the memo, the blog post. . .. However, sometimes the intended audience is harder to decipher from the directions.

I recently read an information technology assignment to write a white paper that explains the benefits of a new computer system, and “to explain” is usually to inform, but white papers are usually persuasive, so the purpose would likely be to convince the audience of the merits of the new system. I initially thought the student was to write informatively, but then it seemed he was to persuade. It could be both, but then, is the audience those who want to understand the benefits, or do they need to be convinced of them, and would those who approve already want to treated as though they don’t, and would those who need persuasion even read what they don’t see the point of?

Sometimes too, there are so many directions—explain this, list that, compare those, describe these, and finally, analyze this, and evaluate that, and all in one 3 to 5-page paper—the writer’s concerns are rightfully on addressing all the subtopics and demonstrating comprehension rather than who the intended audience is. But then, they also do not know where to begin, which is what brings them, thankfully, to the writing center.

Knowing the topic, purpose, and audience helps writers
know where to begin and which direction to go.

The exception to my advocacy of considering the audience early in the writing process is in creative writing. Poets, fiction authors, creative nonfiction essayists, memoirists, and other writers in the arts or really any writer who writes professionally or for the love or art of it, write with or without a particular audience in mind. These writers create their own audience. They put their voice, expression, and creations into the world and see how, where, and for whom they make an impact. Yet even then, the goal for many if not all is for the writing to connect with somebody, and when there is a somebody, there is an audience. In academic writing, we often begin with no intended audience in mind but try to identify one while prewriting.

If you teach or tutor academic writing, help your students consider audience at the onset of the writing assignment. Use yourself as an example of the typical academic reader to help them with the expectations of academic style, but also have them think of the audience as others like them who are interested in their topic or directly impacted by it, those who read at their writing level, and who are purposely reading to glean new information, beliefs, or understanding.

Additionally, if you teach within a specific discipline like behavioral and health sciences, education, criminal justice, law, IT, . . .  fire sciences, help students think about the expectations for communicating within that discourse community. Help them imagine where writing is used and why one would write on the assigned topic. Also, as one of my first writing instructors taught me, have your students imagine readers as nice people who care about what they have to say.

Finally, introduce the element of audience at the beginning of the writing project, and encourage writing as a process, so students have the opportunity to show what they know and write well.

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