Give Them An Audience!

There’s no such thing as a text without an audience. Texts are written for someone or some group. It’s no different in academia. Why then, I would like to ask, do students have to write texts that don’t address an audience (except the teachers or supervisors)?

In my counseling sessions at the university, I deal with a lot of students of varying levels and disciplines. But they have one thing in common: they don’t know their texts’ audience. One might be inclined to blame them for not thinking about it. I, however, would like to suggest that we could blame their teachers and supervisors, who did not construct the assignments accordingly. What is implicit in each and every text those same teachers and researchers publish, is lacking in their students’ work. It wouldn’t take the teachers much more work than before to invent new writing assignments with a clear context, purpose and audience. Not only would the students learn how to deal with differing assignments, it would also be more challenging and, ideally, fun. If the assignments mimicked the ones the students faced in their future professions, they would learn even more.

So what does it take? Not much at all. For each writing assignment you need only a few ingredients: Apart from information about the topic, the text genre (essay, seminar paper, book review, research report, conference abstract, journal editorial, public speech…), you need a more or less specific audience. The audience is comprised of the real or imagined people who would be reading and need to understand the text. Should it be a group of other researchers, who work on the same problems? Could it be the other students from class, who only have a superficial understanding of the topic? Or could it be a group of government officials, who need to be convinced about an argument?

Depending on the text genre, the purpose of a text differs. With that purpose, you also need to imagine how the audience will use the information presented. And therefore, you need to know or imagine, what the people in the audience might want to know, what they already know or how much definitions, technical terms or acronyms they understand. Knowing the audience will influence a text on different levels. That’s why a supervisor’s advice, „Your grandmother should be able to understand your master’s thesis“, doesn’t seem appropriate (that’s a true example, unfortunately).

My clients struggle with their texts, among other things, because they lack an audience. As soon as they have or can imagine one, they can start to work on the answers to questions such as: Which style should I choose? Which words do I need to explain in more detail? What kind of references do I need to make? Which writing conventions and reading habits do I need to consider? In which role do I appear in the text? These and other questions need answers and decisions within the text. We can only decide once we know whom we are writing for. If we don’t have an audience, what’s the point of writing at all?

If you are a student facing an assignment without audience, you have two possibilities: Either you ask your teacher for whom you should be writing the text or you can invent an audience for yourself. You will gain confidence when you know who is supposed to read your text. Only then will you be able to shape your text and prose the way it needs to be.

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