Considering Audience

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. 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, and 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, and 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 a 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, experts, or some combination of both. Literary studies is a 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 impacts in the world.

Everything you do as a researcher (from selecting a problem to proofreading your final draft) should include consideration of your audience. For instance, each researcher must make the audience’s experience as effortless as possible, but not so easy that it oversimplifies their research. If the subject is complicated, you need to explain the complications; however, 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. A good motto for writing research papers is “to deliver rather than to promise.”

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 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 your work, even if it’s great. We need to have some thick skin in the face of criticism. However, 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 social/political conditions are better. The scholarly conversation is an ongoing and iterative process that we all learn from.

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.

Considering Audience Refresher


Exercises

  1. What is your understanding 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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