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February 26, 2012 - Understanding Your Audience

The key for any type of writing is to understand the audience to whom you are communicating. Obviously, your audience varies for the type of writing you are doing, but if you are able to first understand this audience, what they expect from your writing and how they process it, you will not only communicate with them, but you will be communicating effectively. This is the greatest challenge for any writer, but it is an absolute necessity.

The following is a checklist to understand your audience before you start drafting your work.

1. Is your writing for academia, publication, or personal?
While this first point is most obvious, many writers fail to remember for whom they are writing their composition. Simply knowing the audience, understanding their expectations or requirements, and drafting your work inside these parameters is paramount in reaching them. For example, academic writing should be and is expected to be free of clichés or other slang terms that may exist in personal correspondence.

2. Can you assume your audience knows a lot (or just a little) about your topic?
This is another common error by most writers. As a rule of thumb, one should assume that the audience knows nothing about your topic. Exceptions to this rule do exist however when one is writing for a technical journal where the reader is assumed to have a foundational knowledge about the subject matter or for an academic paper in which the topic revolves around a book or novel that has been assigned as required reading for the class. These are just two examples; others exist depending on the writing situation.

3. How long is your audience's attention span?
How many times have you read a magazine article that goes on for pages, or maybe you have read a novel that is 400 pages, but you thought that it could have been written in half that number? It is imperative to understand the appropriate length of your writing in order to satisfy the reader and to effectively hold their attention. Obviously, this is an uncontrollable choice when writing for an academic assignment that has a required page or word count.

4. Is your purpose to explain to or persuade your audience?
This is a very important distinction. In your opening paragraph or thesis, you will identify to your reader your intention to persuade or explain. However, if your purpose is to explain, your audience does not want or value your opinion as the author. The audience is only looking for a presentation of the facts so that they may form their own conclusion from these points. By keeping the purpose of your writing at the forefront, you will effectively communicate to your audience.

5. Are you an expert on your writing topic, or will your audience expect you to have resources to back up your claims?
In other words, how does your audience perceive you? If you are an expert on the topic and renown for your work in the subject matter, your opinion and power to persuade are more respected. However, if you have no experience in the subject matter area, your audience will expect you to justify the reasons for your thoughts and opinions through sources and citations. If you fail to cite the origination of your reasoning, your writing will be received with less credibility.

Use this checklist to understand your audience when writing. This cannot be overstated, because without an audience, what's the point of writing in the first place?

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