3.2: Knowing Your Audience
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What is Audience?
Knowing and addressing an audience is one of the components of the rhetorical situation (the author, the setting, the purpose, the text, and the audience). For more information about the rhetorical situation, see section 6.2
Although addressing an audience seems simple enough, it can be difficult for writers to ascertain exactly who they are writing to. This is exacerbated by the proliferation of writing assignments that ask students to “write to an academic audience.” Although not all audience members are academic, according to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), students in a writing classroom may write to “specific audiences designed into a writing assignment, their colleagues in a peer review exercise, [or] a teacher who provides final assessment.” The NCTE also point out that “In a rhetorical context, the audience typically is a public one, whether real or imagined. In a composition context, the audience can be an audience of the self, an audience of an implied reader, and/or an audience of people the author knows.”
Think about the last time you wrote a paper; who were you writing to? It is likely that you assumed you were writing to the teacher, so you may have focused on writing “correctly” rather than exploring who you were really trying to address and how that should affect your style, language, tone, evidence, etc.
Now, think about the last time you posted on Facebook or crafted a Tweet. It is likely that you were hyperaware of your audience and how what you posted or shared might affect your audience. Knowing that you already have experience(s) with audience expectations when posting or creating social media texts should help you understand how important knowing your audience is when writing in the college composition classroom.
Types of Audience
Writing to an Imagined Audience
When writing, especially in college classes, you might be asked to write an “imagined” audience, which can be difficult for any writer, but specifically for emerging writers. As stated by Melanie Gagich below:
Invoking an audience requires students to imagine and construct their audience, and can be difficult for emerging or even practiced writers. Even when writing instructors do provide students with a specific audience within a writing assignment, it is probable that this “audience” will likely be conceptualized by the student as his or her teacher. This “writing to the teacher” frame of mind often results in students guessing how to address their audience, which hinders their ability to write academically.
Thinking of audience as someone or a group beyond the teacher will help you see various ways you can use language, evidence, style, etc. to support your message and to help you build credibility as the writer/creator.
Writing to a Real Audience
You may also be called upon to address a real and interactive audience. For instance, if your instructor asks you to write an entry for Wikipedia, create a multimodal text, or present your work to your peers; then, the audience is not imagined but concrete and able to “talk back.” Writing for real audience members can be difficult, especially online audiences, because “we can’t always know in advance who they are” (NCTE), yet writing to these audience members can also be a helpful experience because they can respond to your work and offer feedback that goes beyond a teacher’s evaluative responses. Composing in 21st century spaces makes interacting with, talking back to, and learning from audience members much easier.
Addressing an interactive audience also gives you the opportunity to embrace diversity through the act of sharing your work digitally and to explore what it means to be rhetorically aware. Being rhetorically aware means that you understand how the integration of various language(s), cultural references/experiences, linguistic text, images, sounds, documentation style, etc. can help you form a cohesive and logical message that is carefully shared with an interactive audience in an appropriate online space.
What are Discourse Communities?
Knowing the type of audience you’re being asked to address is the first step to becoming aware of your audience. The second step is to determine whether the audience you’re addressing are members of a discourse community. According to NCTE, a discourse community is “a group of people, members of a community, who share a common interest and who use the same language, or discourse, as they talk and write about that interest.” Though you may not address a discourse community every time you write, when you are asked to address an academic audience you are addressing a discourse community .
Generally, everyone is a member of a discourse community. For example, members of movie trivia sites, video gamers, Cleveland Cavaliers fans, etc. are all examples of discourse community membership. Members can often distinguish each other based on their use (or misuse) of language, jargon, slang, symbols, media, clothing, and more. In academia, discourse communities are connected to academic disciplines. For instance, a literature professor’s interests may be very different from a social science professor’s. Differences will also be evident in their use of documentation styles, manuscript formatting, the language they use, and the journals they submit their work to.
You may wonder why it matters? Why not just write in MLA all the time and use the same word choices and tone every time you write? Well, it comes back to illustrating your credibility and awareness of the conventions and communication genres of a discourse community. NCTE explains that “When we write it is useful to think in terms of the discourse community we are participating in and whose members we are addressing: what do they assume, what kinds of questions do they ask, and what counts as evidence?” You earn credibility when discussing a basketball team’s performance when you know all the names of the team member. In a different context, you also demonstrate credibility when you know to use APA rather than MLA in various academic contexts.
- For more information pertaining to audience please visit the NCTE “Audience” Poster or the Wikipedia “Audience” page.
- For more information pertaining to discourse communities please visit the NCTE “Discourse Community” Poster or John Swales’ “The Concept of a Discourse Community.”