In order for your writing to be maximally effective, you have to think about the audience you’re writing for and adapt your writing approach to their needs, expectations, backgrounds, and interests. Being aware of your audience helps you make better decisions about what to say and how to say it. For example, you have a better idea if you will need to define or explain any terms, and you can make a more conscious effort not to say or do anything that would offend your audience.

Sometimes you know who will read your writing – for example, if you are writing an email to your boss. Other times you will have to guess who is likely to read your writing – for example, if you are writing a newspaper editorial. You will often write with a primary audience in mind, but there may be secondary and tertiary audiences to consider as well.

What to Think About

When analyzing your audience, consider these points. Doing this should make it easier to create a profile of your audience, which can help guide your writing choices.

Background-knowledge or Experience -- In general, you don’t want to merely repeat what your audience already knows about the topic you’re writing about; you want to build on it. On the other hand, you don’t want to talk over their heads. Even if you don’t know much about your audience, you can make guesses about their amount of previous knowledge or experience based on things like their age, profession, or level of education.

Expectations and Interests -- Your audience may expect to find specific points or writing approaches, especially if you are writing for a teacher or a boss. Consider not only what they do want to read about, but also what they do not want to read about. Also, your audience may have expectations about how and where they will use your writing. Once you have an idea of the expectations and interests your audience has, you may need to deal with conflicts between what they want and what you want or are capable of.

Attitudes and Biases -- Your audience may have predetermined feelings about you or your topic, which can affect how hard you have to work to win them over or appeal to them. The audience’s attitudes and biases also affect their expectations – for example, if they expect to disagree with you, they will likely look for evidence that you have considered their side as well as your own.

Demographics -- Consider what else you know about your audience, such as their age, gender, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, political preferences, religious affiliations, job or professional background, and area of residence. Think about how these demographics may affect how much background your audience has about your topic, what types of expectations or interests they have, and what attitudes or biases they may have.

Applying Your Analysis to Your Writing

Here are some general rules about writing, each followed by an explanation of how audience might affect it. Consider how you might adapt these guidelines to your specific situation and audience. (Note: This is not an exhaustive list. Furthermore, you need not follow the order set up here, and you likely will not address all of these approaches.)

Add information readers need to understand your document / omit information readers don’t need. Part of your audience may know a lot about your topic, while others don’t know much at all. When this happens, you have to decide if you should provide explanation or not. If you don’t offer explanation, you risk alienating or confusing those who lack the information. If you offer explanation, you create more work for yourself and you risk boring those who already know the information, which may negatively affect the larger view those readers have of you and your work. In the end, you may want to consider how many people need an explanation, whether those people are in your primary audience (rather than a secondary audience), how much time you have to complete your writing, and any length limitations placed on you.

Change the level of the information you currently have. Even if you have the right information, you might be explaining it in a way that doesn’t make sense to your audience. For example, you wouldn’t want to use highly advanced or technical vocabulary in a document for first-grade students or even in a document for a general audience, such as the audience of a daily newspaper, because most likely some (or even all) of the audience wouldn’t understand you.

Add examples to help readers understand. Sometimes just changing the level of information you have isn’t enough to get your point across, so you might try adding an example. If you are trying to explain a complex or abstract issue to an audience with a low education level, you might offer a metaphor or an analogy to something they are more familiar with to help them understand. Or, if you are writing for an audience that disagrees with your stance, you might offer examples that create common ground and/or help them see your perspective.

Change the level of your examples. Once you’ve decided to include examples, you should make sure you aren’t offering examples your audience finds unacceptable or confusing. For example, some teachers find personal stories unacceptable in academic writing, so you might use a metaphor instead.

Change the organization of your information. Again, you might have the correct information, but you might be presenting it in a confusing or illogical order. If you are writing a paper about physics for a physics professor who has his or her PhD, chances are you won’t need to begin your paper with a lot of background. However, you probably would want to include background information in the beginning of your paper if you were writing for a fellow student in an introductory physics class.

Strengthen transitions. You might make decisions about transitions based on your audience’s expectations. For example, most teachers expect to find topic sentences, which serve as transitions between paragraphs. In a shorter piece of writing such as a memo to co-workers, however, you would probably be less concerned with topic sentences and more concerned with transition words. In general, if you feel your readers may have a hard time making connections, providing transition words (e.g., “therefore” or “on the other hand”) can help lead them.

Write stronger introductions – both for the whole document and for major sections. In general, readers like to get the big picture up front. You can offer this in your introduction and thesis statement, or in smaller introductions to major sections within your document. However, you should also consider how much time your audience will have to read your document. If you are writing for a boss who already works long hours and has little or no free time, you wouldn’t want to write an introduction that rambles on for two and a half pages before getting into the information your boss is looking for.

Create topic sentences for paragraphs and paragraph groups. A topic sentence (the first sentence of a paragraph) functions much the same way an introduction does – it offers readers a preview of what’s coming and how that information relates to the overall document or your overall purpose. As mentioned earlier, some readers will expect topic sentences. However, even if your audience isn’t expecting them, topic sentences can make it easier for readers to skim your document while still getting the main idea and the connections between smaller ideas.

Change sentence style and length. Using the same types and lengths of sentences can become boring after awhile. If you already worry that your audience may lose interest in your issue, you might want to work on varying the types of sentences you use. If you notice you tend to use only simple, subject-verb-object sentences (like “Our company leads the industry”), you might try combining some of these sentences to create compound or complex sentences (like “Because we were willing to try new ideas while maintaining the professionalism we are known for, our company now leads the industry”). Of course, this is not to say that simple sentences are always bad; they may be especially useful if you want to keep a document short and easy to comprehend quickly.

Use graphics, or use different graphics. Graphics can be another way to help your audience visualize an abstract or complex topic. Sometimes a graphic might be more effective than a metaphor or step-by-step explanation. Graphics may also be an effective choice if you know your audience is going to skim your writing quickly; a graphic can be used to draw the reader’s eye to information you want to highlight. However, keep in mind that some audiences may see graphics as inappropriate.

Add references, appendices, or footnotes. References can be helpful if you don’t have the time or space to offer extensive background but still want to offer your audience more information. In academic papers, you will often be required to include a references page (although these pages have many other names, such as “bibliography” and “works cited”). Appendices and footnotes can be one solution to the earlier problem of balancing the amount of information you offer readers (see “Add information readers need to understand your document / omit information readers don’t need”). If you know only some readers will need extensive background or extra explanation, you can include this information in appendices or footnotes.

Use headings. Using headings can be another way to help your busy readers. You might use headings for major subtopics within a long document to give readers the option of skimming to find the information they’re most interested in. You can also use headings to indicate that different sections are meant for different audiences.

Use special typography, and work with margins, line length, line spacing, type size, and type style. As stated above, headings, transitions, and topic sentences are some of the ways you can help readers navigate your document and show connections between ideas. However, you can also do this visually. For example, if you place objects close to one another, readers will assume a connection between them. Additionally, when readers first glance at a document, they may make judgments about it based on how text dense it is (usually ok for an academic paper, but not usually effective in a brochure). You may make certain decisions based on whether your audience will read your document in print or on the web. For example, sans serif fonts (like Arial) are more easily read on a computer screen than serif fonts (like Times New Roman). Of course, sometimes you will not have a choice about these things; your editor or teacher may set specific requirements for you to follow.

(Rules adapted from David McMurrey’s online text, Power Tools for Technical Communication)