Considering Audience

Barry Mauer and James Paradiso

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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. Advanced researchers prioritize the reader in their writing, which means they think about how the reader will benefit from their work. Their goal is to make the reader’s experience as valuable as possible. Such writers think, “What does my reader need to know?” and then they ask “how do I write to meet the reader’s needs?”

Scholarly disciplines measure the impact of research by gauging audience response. When readers value their experience reading your work, they cite it, others read about your work and cite it, and so on. In other words, the reader’s experience turns into impact (at least some of the time). Critics write reviews and commentary about your work in journals, providing qualitative feedback.

We have tools to learn about ways that other researchers re-use our scholarly work within their own; advanced researchers use tools such as the h-index to measure how often their work is referenced in other people’s research. Sometimes, impact is subtle and may not be measurable in quantitative ways. For instance, when your readers gain insight from your work 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! Your audience should appreciate your research for its wise choice of problem, its appropriate methodology, its skillful use of sources, its insightfulness, 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, which means your work convinces an audience to take your side in a (potential) dispute. Share your perspective with your readers so that they 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 to delight our audiences while doing so. Good literary research should convince your audience and be enjoyable for 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 by leaving out pieces (called warrants) that link one proposition (claim) to another. 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. This way of writing is called interrogatory, a back and forth as in a conversation. Since our reader isn’t typically in front of us as we write, we imagine a person having this conversation with us.  We list questions – ones that readers might pose – that our scholarly work then answers. The answer may raise additional questions, and so we then answer those too.

Expect that not everyone will like your work, approve of it, or agree with it, 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. 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, though. It means we may need to rethink our argument, or try a more receptive audience, or wait until social/political conditions change. 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]

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Exercises [Identifying a Problem]

  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 is your plan for researching what problems your audience considers to be “significant” and “relevant”?
  4. If there are any elements of your assignment that need clarification, please list them.
  5. What was the most important lesson you learned from this page? What point was confusing or difficult to understand?



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