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III. Have a Clear Sense of Audience, Purpose, and Genre

Feb 07, 2011 by Caroline Eisner

To become a good writer in your field or discipline, as Ken Hyland writes, is to pay close attention to your audience. Think about your rhetorical purpose and the academic standards of the genre in which you are writing. Are you clear about how to meet the expectations of your audience, to explain the purpose of why you are writing, and to both meet the needs of your audience and your purpose within the genre you are writing?

When thinking about your academic audience, remember that academic writing is devoted to topics and questions that are of interest to this audience. You must find a topic or a question that is relevant and appropriate to this audience. Remember that academic writing must be more than a personal response. You must write what your readers need to know to understand your topic, based on experts in the field.

Audience

Who is your audience? When writing an academic paper, you must not only consider what you want to say, you must also consider to whom you are saying it. In other words, it’s important to determine not only what you think about a topic, but also what your audience is likely to think. What are your audience’s biases and values, expectations and knowledge base? Remember, your audience is NOT you.

What do you know about your readers and their positions on your topic? What are your readers likely to know about the topic? What effect do you hope to have on your readers? Is your aim to be controversial, informative, or entertaining? Will your readers appreciate or resent your purpose?

Purpose

What is your purpose? If your audience knows less than you do on the topic, your first purpose is often instructional or an informative stance. If the audience knows more than you do, your first purpose is usually to display familiarity, expertise, and intelligence. Be as specific and detail oriented as possible. Don’t expect your readers to know what you know. You are the expert in this study. You need to hold your readers’ hands so that they can follow your argument as it progresses.

For this reason, your position on a topic does not by itself determine your rhetorical purpose because you must also consider your readers. When you decide on your rhetorical purpose, choose one that allows you to be sincere. Don’t take an authoritative stance on a subject if you lack confidence in what you are writing. On the other hand, don’t avoid taking a position on a subject. Nothing is worse than reading a paper in which the writer has refused to take a stance. Finally, don’t write simply to please your readers. Most readers will want your argument to be engaging and to provide a fresh perspective.

Your stance on your topic depends on whether you are for or against your topic, and you build your argument through your analysis of what you research on the topic. What perspective/lens will you use to view your topic: feminist, psychoanalytic, historical, etc.? Ask yourself why you have chosen your particular perspective or stance. Does this stance reflect biases or preconceptions on your part? Is there any part of your response that might cause your readers to discount your argument as biased or un-critical? If so, you might want to reconsider your position on your topic.

Genre

What is the genre in which you are writing? First, it is most likely academic. If it is a dissertation, your college or university will provide you with guidelines for chapters, sections, etc. If it is an academic paper or a scholarly article, you will be working toward proving a new point, and again the genre of such a work will be made clear by your professor, or the submission guidelines of the journal. If you are unsure of what genre you need to be writing in, ask. Most academic papers require literature reviews, which adhere to their own set of guidelines, as do dissertation proposals, book or article reviews, opinion pieces, etc. Generally, all academic writing is persuasive, and requires you to perform high-level intellectual understanding of the topic through analysis (recognizing patterns suggested by facts), synthesis (producing something new from two or more sources or ideas), and evaluation (judging the quality of a solution, theory, or perspective).

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