Writing, in all forms it takes, can be very scary. This is because writing is hard! If you’re anything like me, you may also worry about what others will think of your writing. It’s inevitable that some people won’t like or agree with what you say, but what you can do is make sure that your writing is as foolproof as possible. You’ve probably heard about “evidence” in your writing, but another way to really keep your writing tight is to think about audience. Who am I writing for? Who might encounter my writing? What do I want those people to take away from what I’ve written? In this blog post, I’ll give you two scenarios where thinking about audience can make the difference between just another piece of writing, and a narrative that really lands with a wow! 

Scenario #1: The Personal Statement, Or Why You Shouldn’t Just Rehash Your Resume 

‘Tis application season! Whether its undergraduate or graduate, application season is tough: gathering materials, writing your essays, and the dreaded wait until you hear some flicker of news.  With application rates rising and acceptance rates falling, it’s even more important for you to make a mark. In comes the personal statement. The personal statement is often billed to students as your chance to “tell the admissions committee about who you are.” For many students, the instinct is to write about what you’ve done so far. What’s the harm in reminding them of your achievements, you wonder? Well, this is the moment to think about audience. What is your reader expecting from you? They’re expecting new information: “who you are.” Admissions counselors will have read your resume – that’s their job! This is the one space you have to introduce new information about yourself, and that is what your audience is looking for. Asking yourself that simple question—what does my audience know about me at this point, and what do they expect—can make the difference between just another statement, and a story that makes you stick in their minds (which is the goal)!

Scenario #2: The Prompt Assignment, Or Don’t Write For Your Professor! 

In your studies, you’ll encounter a variety of writing exercises that are designed to not only improve your writing and ability to communicate, but are also an opportunity to demonstrate your acquired knowledge. Whether it’s a summary, a response paper, a short close reading, often students will receive a prompt. If there’s no prompt, often students are told to write about “what interests” them. In both cases, many students make an understandable yet fatal mistake: they “write for” their professor. This takes a variety of forms: writing in medias res, or assuming that the reader “knows” what the student has been asked to do; omitting key details from an object/text, under the assumption that since the professor assigned it, they must know this information, among others. Who is your audience, in this scenario? Your professor, sure, but more than that: it’s your peers, people in your class and people who are interested in this topic! Think about how someone who isn’t in your class would encounter your piece—would they be able to figure out the conversation taking place? Writing for a general audience is standard practice in academic writing and it’s also the most effective for several reasons. A great way to show your mastery of information is to be able to communicate it in a way that is both expository and concise—or as I like to say it, nothing more and nothing less. In this situation, thinking about audience and reminding yourself that your writing, in theory, will be encountered by many people beyond your professor (even if in practice that is not true) will help you grow as a concise and thoughtful writer and communicator. 

How to Incorporate “Audience” Into Your Editing Process

I want to leave you with some tips on how to incorporate this question of “audience” in your writing. These aren’t steadfast rules, but in my work with students, I have found that students who do these tricks are always the most concise and clear writers. 

Framing Your Questions/Answers

If you have a prompt, try and paraphrase it in your introduction. If it’s more open ended, try and crystallize what your “question” is: why are you writing this piece? What are you trying to solve? Putting this explicitly in words gives the reader a framing for your work. 

Specialized Knowledge vs Common Sense

Most arguments rely on the assumption that you, as the writer, have some knowledge you are trying to communicate that others do not. Whether its original research or a new interpretation of a passage, that is information that is not “common sense,” or information possessed by the average person. As you are editing, and this is especially true in your body paragraphs, ask yourself: is this common knowledge or is this a claim that feels true to me because I’m so familiar with this object? If it’s the latter, you might need to slow down and explain some stuff to the reader!

Get a second pair of eyes

Inevitably, you will hit a point where you cannot see any further into your own writing; you will have become so used to it that everything you say feels natural. This is a perfect chance to find someone to help you look through it. Whether its just for typos or for (more important) questions on structure and argumentation, having another person read it is the best way to figure out how your writing is landing with the reader. 

Keeping the audience in mind will only help make you a stronger and more convincing writer!

Michael holds a BA in Mathematics and American Studies at Wesleyan University, and a PhD in American Studies at Harvard University. His studies focus on 19th century US history and the history of the life sciences.


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