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In Writing, what is an Audience?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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In writing, the audience is an important consideration. Before a writer puts anything on paper, he or she should consider exactly who will be reading it. These readers are the audience, and a writer may need to change writing styles slightly to capture the interest of different ones.

Sometimes, especially in school settings, the concept of audience may not be clearly defined on a writing assignment. Students may not be sure if they are writing to please the teacher, himself, or his fellow students. Asking a teacher to define who the work should be targeted to is an excellent way for a writer to figure out how to express himself.

For example, one question that frequently comes up in student papers is whether the writer can assume the reader will have some knowledge about the subject. If he can assume the audience will have read the material, or is conversant in the subject he is discussing, this tells him that he can be more technical and may not need to briefly summarize or define the topic prior to getting into details. On the other hand, if he is introducing a new concept or a new idea, with which the reader is not familiar, brief summaries and explanations may be required to make the ideas clear.

Unpracticed writers often have the idea that there is only one way to express themselves, through very scholarly and verbose language. For some readers, like a group of Deconstructionists, this may be the best means to communicate, but for most, including teachers, clear simple language is the best way of making a point. Most modern writing, except in graduate scholarly levels, should aim for clear expression, easy to understand words, and really should resemble a slightly more formal mode of expression than talking. Students often assume that a lofty writing style will earn them points with a peer or teacher, when it usually has the opposite effect.

People who have not had a lot of writing experience frequently make this mistake in business too. Whether a person is writing a memo, an employee review, a cover letter, or a business email, he should write to the expected reader. In most cases, the audience is likely to be someone like the writer, with about the same level of education. Using big words and long sentences may not serve him well.

Novelists and poets often are only successful in so far as they can write to a defined audience. For example, the Harry Potter books were written in such a way that they would appeal to young readers. J.K. Rowling could have written the books for a more adult reader, and the books do contain elements that greatly appeal to adults, but the language choices she makes also greatly appeal to kids and make the books accessible to young readers. Her choices in subject matter, use of humor, and creativity are all examples of Rowling’s understanding of target reader.

Knowledge of audience, and knowing what this group expects, is often related to the Greek term kairos. Loosely defined, kairos means knowing what to say and when to say it. It implies a sense of good timing and an understanding about the portion of society, however small, that a person wants to address. Kairos was a key term in teaching rhetoric and speech in ancient Greece because it helped young writers learn how to read an audience and understand how best to appeal to that group.

From the Greek perspective, and in many modern writing classes, a person can’t simply write but must also learn how the world works. Words are powerful things that can either inspire or disgust a reader, or completely fail to communicate what the writer wants. They do have to be chosen with care. Ultimately, understanding an audience is about understanding the person or people who will read the work. It means that the author should write not only to satisfy himself, but also to satisfy, thrill, or fulfill others.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By GameHunter00 — On Aug 23, 2010

I have an unpleasant e-mail to send out to one of my offices in another state. Unfortunately, this particular office is not bringing in enough money to support themselves; it is taking profits from other successful offices to cover the difference.

After incentives failed to bring progress, I tried written warnings about performance. Should I send a general e-mail to all employees or one to the manager and have them deliver the news?

By SunDevils11 — On Aug 23, 2010

A paper I wrote in college was just about how to identify with your intended audience. In all my years of writing professionally and at work, I never thought of how it came across to the reader. I learned identifying with your audience should apply when you are writing a college paper, book or even an e-mail to a co-worker.

You want to make sure you proofread your work; if it’s a big project then having someone else proofread your work is an even better idea. That way they can suggest you elaborate on an idea or eliminate unnecessary words.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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