The writing process: Considering your reader
Knowing your reader allows you to determine the level of detail and the tone you’ll need in your paper. Your level of education can help you decide what your reader is like. An MA thesis, for example, is usually written for expert readers, but you may want to also make your thesis accessible to a broader audience. The audience of an undergrad paper varies from paper to paper, class to class, discipline to discipline, but undergrads can usually assume an audience about halfway between the generalist and the expert.
General vs. expert audience
You can imagine the generalist and the expert on opposite ends of a spectrum. The generalist knows only the things you can assume anyone with a high school education would know. If your paper is meant to be accessible to the public, your audience is the generalist.
For the generalist…
- Avoid technical terms. If you do need technical language in some places, make sure you define it clearly, in simpler terms.
- Avoid too much detail. The finer points of quantum mechanics, for example, will be completely lost on those barely acquainted with the concept of the atom. Don’t tackle anything unnecessarily complex, and don’t decide to write on the nuances of quantum mechanics if you’re audience is an average member of the public.
- Avoid too much complexity. Use shorter, simpler sentences and shorter, simpler words.
- Use slow and simple explanation to make your argument. Generalists are, by definition, not used to complex arguments or elaborate explanations. Take the time to clarify and show your logic.
- Be informative. A generalist often requires a good account of the background or context of your topic. Although you shouldn’t overload him with information, offer enough for him to feel comfortable with the topic.
- Use examples to clarify your points. Examples allow you to show why and when your arguments matter and to elucidate complex processes. They also make your ideas more relatable.
The expert has intimate knowledge of your topic. You can assume that she knows much more than your generalist, so she requires less background and less time spent defining terms. The expert is also much pickier, though, so you need to take more care and be more precise.
For the expert…
- Don’t over-explain. Common technical terms of the field do not require explanation. The obvious background of the field does not need to be laid out in much detail (unless it forms a crucial part of your argument). Obvious logical connections don’t call for as much attention.
- Show nuance in your arguments. Although it’s important to avoid explaining what will be obvious to experts, writing for experts often requires more explanation overall. Experts are more aware of the assumptions you make and more critical of the explanations you give, which means you have to more carefully justify each of your claims. Make sure your paper does not help itself to any (even mildly) controversial claims without giving some justification.
- Exhibit command of the literature. Experts are far more attentive to the things you might fail to mention. Do your research, and try to make sure no clearly relevant sources or arguments remain unaccounted for, especially if they might pose significant problems for your own argument.
Hostile vs. receptive audience
Again, imagine a spectrum, this time with hostile audiences at one end and receptive audiences at the other. Your reader could be at either end or anywhere in between, and you should treat the reader based on where you think she falls.
Sometimes you will make arguments that people just do not want to believe. In cases like these, you will often face a hostile audience. Keep in mind that hostility and skepticism are different. Experts are always skeptical, but they rarely set out to stubbornly disbelieve you—your hostile audience begins with the assumption that you’re wrong, and then looks for ways to show it.
If you are expecting a hostile audience…
- Write confidently. Don’t let a hostile audience sense any lack of conviction.
- Show sensitivity. At the same time, however, show an understanding of why your audience is resistant. An audience becomes more receptive when they know you understand them.
- Be diplomatic. A common argumentative mistake is to get too defensive, shutting down every claim from the opposition. This tact rarely ends in you convincing your opponent of anything. Instead, try to find and exploit points that you and your audience do agree on. Meet them on common ground, take them by the hand, and from there try to lead them to your conclusion.
- Fortify your argument. Spend more time providing support for your key claims to ensure that they are thoroughly established in at least a few different ways.
- Know your background. If possible, ensure that you leave no obvious counter-arguments unaccounted for. It does not matter how good your argument is if a hostile audience has an obvious objection that you don’t address (whether or not that objection is any good).
Other times you will say things that people are a bit too eager to hear, and in these cases you face a receptive audience. Receptive audiences are easy to convince, since they begin with the assumption that you are right, and look for ways to show it. In academia, however, such audiences are rare.
Something to keep in mind for receptive audiences is that it may be your role to remind them to be critical thinkers. You don’t want them to accept your argument for the wrong reasons, or merely because they decided they would agree before they even read it.
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Your professors, supervisors, or disciplines
Each professor will have unique tastes in writing, and entire disciples are marked by their own writing conventions. These tastes and conventions are often relatively unimportant to the argument of your essay, but they are not irrelevant to your reader. For example, some professors will love the serial comma (the comma before “and” in every list); others will think it unnecessary. Professors in the sciences sometimes insist that affect is only a verb and effect is only a noun; professors in literary studies and philosophy tend to insist that both affect and effect can function as nouns or verbs, and that the two words have very different meanings.
- Know the preferences of your professors, supervisors, and disciplines. Conform to these preferences unless you are taking a principled stance against one of them. The less your reader sighs at some more or less unimportant aspect of your writing, the better off you will be.
- Prioritize the preferences of whomever you are writing directly for. If your supervisor’s tastes diverge from the standards of the discipline, so should yours when you write for your supervisor. If your professor has very unique taste, so should you when your write for that professor.