Chapter Two: Identifying a Problem / Evaluating Relevance and Purpose / Considering Audience

Considering Audience

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When you write literary scholarship and criticism, you are writing for someone: your audience. The audience may be real or imagined; in other words, there may be a real group of people who will read your work or you might just be writing a practice work at this point in your research career. Whether your audience is real or imagined at this point, you need to consider your audience as you prepare to research and write your project. Scholarly disciplines measure the impact of research by gauging how audiences respond. Critical reviews and commentary provide qualitative feedback. We can also learn how other researchers re-use your work within their own; advanced researchers use tools such as the h-index to measure how their research is referenced in other people’s research. Sometimes impact is more subtle and may not be measurable in such quantitative ways. For instance, audience impact occurs when your readers gain insight or consider a problem from a new perspective. They may not all respond in a measurable way.

One of your goals as a researcher – beyond finding and addressing problems – is to impact your audience, and you want that impact to be positive. In other words, you don’t want your audience to hold up your research as an example of bad work! You want your audience to appreciate your research for its wise choice of problem, its appropriate methodology, its powerful use of sources, its airtight reasoning, its relevant conclusion, and its faultless presentation. You want to impact your audience’s thinking about a problem just as an attorney wants to impact the jury’s thinking about a case.

Your research should impact your audience rhetorically, meaning your work convinces your audience to take your side in a (potential) dispute, to see things the way you see them. The Roman rhetor, Cicero, said that rhetoric was Docere, Delectare, Movere: to teach, to delight, to move. To move someone, rhetorically, means to convince them to shift their beliefs. We are more likely to move our audience when we adopt the strategies of good teacher, and delight our audiences while doing so. Good literary research should convince your audience, and be enjoyable to them at the same time.

In general, if you are writing literary criticism or theory, you are appealing to an audience of other literary scholars. These scholars may be beginners or experts or some combination of both. Literary studies is part of a knowledge apparatus that involves people fulfilling different functions. These functions include researchers, teachers, students, editors, publishers, librarians, conference attendees, and many others. They all work together to advance their discipline and its goal, which is to improve the understanding of literature and its impact in the world.

Everything you do as a researcher, from selecting a problem to proofreading your final draft, should include consideration for your audience. Each researcher must make the audience’s experience as effortless as possible, but not so easy that it oversimplifies the research. If the subject is complicated, you need to explain the complications. But don’t overly complicate the reader’s experience by adding extraneous information, repeating points unnecessarily, using specialized terminology without offering definitions, or writing in a self-indulgent way.

Also, always imagine your audience as being critical – not that they are evaluating you necessarily – but that they are evaluating your claims. Thus, avoid making assumptions or unsubstantiated claims in your writing and don’t leave logical gaps. Be sure to address counterclaims that your audience may consider. You should always anticipate your audience’s thoughts by imagining what questions they might ask, in which order, and by addressing these questions systematically in your work.

Expect that not everyone will like our work, even if it is great. We need to have some thick skin in the face of criticism. But what other people think of our work does matter to some extent. We are writing for an audience we wish to persuade, and if they are not persuaded then we have failed. Failure is not the end of the world. It means we may need to rethink our argument, or try a more receptive audience, or wait until conditions are right. The scholarly conversation is an ongoing and iterative process and we all learn from it.

Key Takeaways

Imagining your audience effectively

Imagining your audience ineffectively

You prioritize your audience in every step of the research process You don’t think about your audience, or only do so at the end of your research process
You write primarily for an audience of scholars and critics in your field You write primarily for your teacher or for people outside your field
You try to maximize the impact of your work You don’t consider the impact of your work
You make the audience’s experience as effortless as possible You make the audience’s experience unnecessarily difficult
You imagine a critical audience and address their concerns in your work You imagine an uncritical audience or you don’t address concerns that a critical audience might raise about your work

  1. What is your concept of the word “problem” as it relates to literary studies?
  2. What steps will you need to take to better understand your audience?
  3. What was the most important lesson you learned from this page? What point was confusing or difficult to understand?

Write your answers in a webcourse discussion page.

Go to the Discussion area and find the Identifying a Problem and Considering Audience Discussion. Participate in the discussion.



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Strategies for Conducting Literary Research Copyright © 2021 by Barry Mauer & John Venecek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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