Smarthinking Writer's Handbook

Analyzing Your Audience

Chapter 2: Section 1, Lesson 1

When you sit down to write, keep in mind that everyone has her or his own set of beliefs, opinions, and values. Your audience members will have varying degrees of knowledge and understanding when it comes to your topic. And, depending on where they work and/or go to school, where they come from, and how they’ve been asked to think about the ideas you’re discussing, they will all have different sets of expectations when they read what you say. All of these things ultimately affect how readers will respond to your message. To help increase your awareness of the group you may be writing to, ask some questions about them before you sit down and write and as you revise. These questions fall into three different categories:

  • Who exactly you’re writing to
  • What you hope to accomplish by writing to them
  • How or where the document will be used

These concepts will affect your message as well how you might choose to get it across. In general terms, the people you’re writing to are your audience. What you hope to accomplish is your purpose. The situation in which the message is used is its context.

Your audience members may vary wildly, but some examples are the students in your class or those who attend the same college or university as you. The audience may be your instructor or a series of instructors who will evaluate a portfolio of your writing at some point during the semester. For instance, you might find out about the audience in the assignment if your instructor asks you to write to an audience of “reasonably well-informed adults who are skeptical of your claim.” Finally, because of the Internet, your audience could also be a vast online community. If you’re writing an online review of a novel, anyone around the world with Internet access and a vague interest in that book could be considered an audience member.

The purpose of your writing is what you hope to accomplish. For example, if you had to explain an assignment to a friend or family member, you would probably start by saying, “I’m writing an essay for my English 102 class that involves arguing about cultural assimilation.” The purpose, then, is for you to complete an assignment to demonstrate understanding or proficiency and earn a grade. To write effectively in a classroom setting, you might find it helpful to think beyond the academic exercise you’re completing and consider how the assignment you’ve been given might fulfill a broader purpose to inform and/or persuade your potential readers.

The situation in which you use a message is its context. Much of the writing you do may be for a particular class; being aware of context means, in part, understanding the expectations of your instructor in terms of what he or she may expect of an assignment when you turn in the final draft. Context applies outside the classroom as well: different contexts ask you to use different language: you wouldn’t typically write to an instructor the same way you’d write an email to a close friend.

The chart below includes different questions you can ask yourself when thinking about how to write out your ideas. Of course, you need not limit yourself to the questions below. They are meant to be a starting point for you to begin analyzing your audience:




Who will be reading, listening to, or using this material?

  • Answers to this question will vary: your instructor may be one response; however, your assignment may ask you to imagine a more diverse group of readers. A group of community members could be another possible answer; just your fellow students may be a third.

Why is this communication important?

  • Importance could mean that if your audience doesn’t get the message, they’ll all die, or importance could mean that they may miss out on an ice cream social being held on the campus quad next week.

What are the organizational settings in which the document will be used?

  • Thinking about how the document will be read will help you design and format it effectively. If the document is going to be referred to as a reference, making it easy to use is important.

What special characteristics do they have?

  • A special characteristic might mean that your audience members are all color blind or that they’re all from a remote Pacific island. They could all be sixth-graders, or they could have all three of the above characteristics, in which case you’ll have to accommodate this audience in your document to.

Why is it needed?

  • If this document isn’t written, your reader may be at a loss when it comes to understanding a particular insight or idea. Your job here is to make sure you know what that insight is.

Are there legal issues to consider?

  • Think about what you’re revealing to readers in the document you’re writing and how you’re revealing it. If you’re passing along personal information about yourself or others, what legal recourse might there be on the part of your readers?

Which discourse community or communities do they belong to?

  • This question asks what groups your audience members belong to and how those memberships affect how they receive your message. Are they used to reading long paragraphs, or do they prefer short ones? How accustomed are they to the words you choose? Will they know what you’re saying if you write symbiosis, or will you need to explain it?

What will your readers do with this information?

  • This can go beyond practical applications like how to properly change a car tire. Readers may be able to use the information you provide as a reason to take action or not to take action on a particular issue. They might use what you say to better understand a concept or idea. All of these purposes are useful.

How much time do readers have to use the info you’ve given them?

  • This may affect how you format the document, what points you emphasize, and how you emphasize them. If a reader has very little time to read through the information, then highlighting important points by using appropriate formatting becomes important.

What are their backgrounds and attitudes toward the subject?

  • This question is asking you to take into account what your readers may already know about your topic, or what opinions or perspectives they may already have regarding your topic.

What, if any, membership do readers share in a group that expects certain ways of explaining ideas?

  • For example, people who read scientific articles and journals have fairly specific expectations of the literature they expect to find in those journals. If you don’t meet those expectations with your writing, they won’t be interested in what you say.

Are audience members from one culture only, or is this information directed at a cross-cultural audience?

  • In Japan, for instance, saying that something is going to be difficult may be read as a roundabout way of saying that it shouldn’t happen or can’t be done; however, to people in the United States, saying the same thing could only indicate the task will take a couple more minutes.

Think About It

  • What different reasons do you have for writing?
  • Who, specifically, are you writing to?
  • Who will be using this writing, and where and when will they be using it?

By answering these questions and others like them, you’ll be well on your way to successfully analyzing the audience you plan to address.


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