When we begin to write, one of our most pressing questions is who is my audience? Why? Because we are not writing a person-less paper to no one. If we think about our actual readers, we often can identify them as members of our discourse community or stakeholders in other discourse communities who will be affected by the ideas we offer about the problem at hand. But how do we take these people into account when we produce a report, an argument, a brochure, a PSA, a manual, or a proposal—and the list goes on. How do we develop audience awareness for the various types of documents we might create in academic, professional, and public settings?
We know that talking out a problem with others requires us to interact—to listen, respond, and reflect, to give and to take. How often in a conversation or class discussion have you said, “I can relate” before giving your opinion? This same conversational give-and-take can be applied to situations where you dig into a pressing workplace or community problem. On the page, when we “relate”—when we approximate a lively conversation between ourselves and our stakeholders—we can write more effectively and be taken more seriously.
Stakeholders: a synonym for audience. Stakeholders are other people with the same question as I have about the problem, the people causing the problem, the people impacted by the problem, or the people who think they have a better answer than I do. They may be like-minded, hostile, of two minds, or noncommittal. However, we may not know where they stand unless we actually talk to them. While this may be possible, it’s not likely that in all situations we can have a one-on-one with people who might care about what we have to say.
So, how can we write texts that include our audience in the buzz going on in our heads? Read what others have to say relevant to our problem. Our research provides a foundation for our inquiry. We can draw on others to establish the background on the problem, to discover what like-minded writers have said that can support our arguments, and to recognize what hostile writers have argued so we can respond intelligently. Entering this course, you probably already have had experience writing a research paper in this way.
As well as being an important factor in our research process, our audience is also integral to our writing process. In the early phase of generating ideas, we can imagine our audience into being when we use our sources as a sounding board. The person who shares our view, the person who vehemently disagrees, and the one who is on the fence—we can write directly to them, and then as our drafts unfold, we can weave that conversation into our lines of reasoning.
Often when we put together an essay or a research report we are so focused on getting the information on the page, we don’t think about how the information may be received by our audience. Usually after we have done research, we summarize our sources and restate what they mean in our own words. Or we put two sources together and note the similarities and differences between them. However in the inquiry stage of unpacking a problem, we could go one more step: instead of simply adding on our opinion, what if we also talked back to these sources—as if they actually were sitting next to us? I agree because. . .I take your point, but. . .From there we could imagine how they might talk back to us, what we might say in return. This practice of imagining our audience’s responses could lead us to find additional credible evidence, refine our reasoning, and or include visuals to illustrate the point.
I’m borrowing from Gerald Graff and Kathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say (2018) in making this suggestion to “talk back” to our sources. Graff and Birkenstein suggest that we identify stakeholders who are going to say wait a minute as they read our text. Reviewing our early drafts, we should locate where someone would want to counter us. We can “plant” a naysayer in our text by stating their objection and then responding to them (78-9). Doing so builds our trustworthiness (our ethos) because, by acknowledging other points of view, we are being fair-minded. But I want to take this idea further and not only focus on those skeptical about our ideas.
It’s just as important to get the conversation going among all of those involved in the problem we’re exploring. Those asking the same question as I am. Those affected by the problem. Those who have a better solution in mind. In other words, with each passage we produce, we could pause and ask ourselves what would each different stakeholder say about what I just wrote? If we apply ourselves to this type of sophisticated writing process, we develop a well-conceived tapestry animated by a living-breathing writer, rather than a bunch of sources strung together by no one in particular.
That’s what we’re hoping for, isn’t it? To make progress with our writing. But imagine a naysayer, not thinking we are on the same page, interrupting right here. Wait a minute! She raises her hand. This process sounds useful for putting together a more complex research paper than I’ve written before, but I’m supposed to create a PSA for a non-profit organization, not do a research paper.
If I were in class, I would say to that student, clearly a stakeholder like me who wants to solve the problem of connecting with her audience: Good point. I have just given you some ideas for building audience awareness that you can use to write a strong academic essay—one in which you are effectively interacting with your sources and your stakeholders. However, let’s think about how we can apply writing our audience into other types of texts. What does that lively conversation look like?
I would start with a series of questions: What are the aims of the non-profit I’m creating this text for? Who are my stakeholders? Who am I interacting with? Why do they need this public service announcement? What is this problem really all about? I’d start answering these questions by reading what others have said about the problem. And there I am, just as I would be if I were assigned a research paper—engaged in inquiry, doing research, talking back to my sources, and thus developing a message more responsive to a diverse community’s needs. In this situation, I would extend my research, though, to include inquiry into the genre because I’m not familiar with what an effective PSA looks like. After analyzing a variety of PSA samples, I’d test out visuals and formatting, imagining at each stage what a range of stakeholders would say and then adjust my draft accordingly.
When it comes down to it, whatever kind of document we are producing, we want our audience to take us seriously. Two basic questions can guide us: What is the problem really about? Who cares about the problem? From there, we can begin writing the conversation into our unfolding drafts. If our readers can locate themselves in our texts and feel as if we are co-collaborators in problem-solving, we go a long way in creating an ethos they trust.
Birkenstein, Cathy and Gerald Graff. They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing 4th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2018.