The Importance of Audience

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Hello again! During our first post, we explored the question of why we write, finding many typical answers to be inaccurate or incomplete. In our last post, we introduced the rhetorical triangle, solidifying the real reason people write: to close the gap in understanding between writer and audience. In this post, we will discuss audience, its importance, and how to identify what your audience knows and what they need to know.

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In the rhetorical triangle, the audience acts as the receiver and evaluator of the writer’s message. They are the people who want to or are meant to read the writer’s work. Even if the writer’s message is sound, if the audience is not convinced or cannot understand the message, the writer has failed to close the gap in understanding. With this information in mind, the audience plays a crucial role during the acts of writing and revising because every sentence must be tailored to increase their understanding of the writer’s message. That means every time you write a sentence, you should be thinking of who your audience is and how this sentence helps them understand your message better. With such emphasis placed on audience, the question remains: how do we identify who our audience is?

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Identifying audience can be tricky. Many students want to believe the audience is only their professor, peers in their class, or maybe even “people who don’t know about my subject.” However, audience is more complicated than that. On the most simple level, we write text messages to informal audiences (our friends and family) while we write school papers to formal audiences (professor, class, discourse community), changing our level of language to match the audience we’re interacting with. On a more complex level, we have to ask ourselves the following questions.

  • What does our informal or formal audience know about our subject?
  • What don’t they know?
  • What do they expect from us?
  • What is important to them?
  • What isn’t important to them?
  • What do you want them to know about our subject?
  • What do we want them to know about us? (“Audience,” 2015)

Here is an example of an informal writing situation:

If we broke this situation down, we can infer the father knows about the hardship of young pregnancy, but he doesn’t know that his son had supposedly gotten his girlfriend pregnant. The son expertly reads his audience (his father), knowing that his father neither expected nor wanted the son’s girlfriend to be pregnant. Using this information, he flips the situation around to match his father’s expectations by revealing the truth that the girlfriend isn’t pregnant; he just failed his biology exam. Thus, the son uses his knowledge of his audience to lessen the blow of his failure in a strategic way.

Examples of formal writing situations include essays, resumés, applications, professional emails, etc. Just as in the informal example, the more the writer knows about the audience, the more persuasive and strategic the writer can be. If you’re writing a resumé, for example, then you must know what the employer knows about you, what they don’t know about you, what’s important to them, what isn’t important to them, and what they expect of you if they hire you. The more you know about your employer, the better the chance you will land the job because you can present yourself in a way that matches their expectations and desires.

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In formal essays, audience proves to be even trickier because of the balance between summary and analysis. Often, students think that summary is informing the readers of their point, when in fact, summary usually just reminds the readers of what they already know. For example, if I’m making an argument about The Great Gatsby, and I spend two or three paragraphs summarizing what happened in the book, I have wasted precious space, time, and most importantly, the readers’ attention on something they already know. Remember, the goal of writing is to close the gap in understanding between the writer and the audience, meaning the writer knows something about the subject the audience doesn’t. They’ve read The Great Gatsby, but what they don’t know is what I’m trying to say about it. They expect to learn what my argument is; they don’t expect a summary of what they already know.

This expectation reinforces the difference between summary—a brief recounting of the main points of something—and analysis—the detailed examination of what the elements or structure of something actually means. What we’re saying is that we shouldn’t summarize unless it is important to our analysis. Analysis is where all our ideas and argumentation lie, which is where we work to close the gap in understanding between writer and audience.

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To sum up, writers write to close the gap in understanding between them and their audience, utilizing their knowledge of the audience to close that gap more effectively. Next time you go to write, think of your audience after you’ve decided on your subject. Think about what you want to tell them and how. Think about what they know and what they don’t know. Pretend your audience knows everything about your subject but nothing about your argument (your message). Let a friend read your paper to see if your message makes sense to them. Most of all, try to have fun solving the puzzle of how to get your audience to understand your message.

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“Audience.” The Writing Center UNC. The Writer Center UNC, 2012. Web. 22 September 2015.

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