Determining Audience and Tone
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All writers need, to some degree, to consider the interests, intellectual capacity, needs and biases of their reading audiences when they write. Two common mistakes that college writers make are to assume that 1) their audience is limited to a particular instructor of a particular course; or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, that 2) they cannot possibly guess what a reading audience might be like. Neither of these assumptions are wholly correct. These guidelines will provide some tips for considering your audience and how to write "to" them rather than just writing "for" them.
- ARE YOU WONDERING IF YOU ARE USING AN APPROPRIATE TONE?
Tone -- the attitude of the writer toward the subjec matter and the reader -- is a particular problem for writers, especially when you have strong views about your subject matter or your subject is controversial.
Important reminders about tone:
If you go on the offensive, your reader will go on the defensive (this may be true even when your reader agrees with your position and just doesn't like people being snotty).
- Sarcasm, unsuitable humor, condescension and accusations are rarely persuasive.
- Logic should carry the paper, not emotion. Rely on your substantive arguments, the quality of your evidence and sources, and the clear presentation of points rather than a tone of indignance or importance to make your position clear.
- A hostile audience must be treated fairly and politely. you can acknowledge the persuasiveness of opposing arguments while still maintaining your own position.
- Know when to vary tone. Your readers may tolerate a stronger or more aggressive tone later on in a paper after laying out some strong logical arguments and evidence of your own fair-mindedness . Try to find a copy or video of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech to see a master of the buildup of tone.
- Don't think about tone as a matter of pleasing your audience, think about it as the appropriate method of communicating what you want them to know.
- ARE YOU WONDERING HOW TO WRITE A PAPER FOR A "GENERAL" AUDIENCE?
The most difficult type of audience analysis comes when writing for that fuzzy, faceless group of people known as "a general audience." Some tips to help you:
- Assume that your audience is fairly well educated and interested in what you have to say. Write as if they have some general familiarity with well-known topics, but not detailed understanding of those topics or knowledge of more obscure topics.
- Assume that they are in the middle 60% of readers who neither adamantly agree or disagree with your position. They are persuadable but the arguments must be sensible and well-supported.
- Think about why your audience may be reading your paper. Are you providing information, expounding your views on a controversial topic, or entertaining your reader? This can help you determine the type of language you use and the nature of the information you provide.
- ARE YOU WONDERING HOW TO WRITE A PAPER FOR AN INSTRUCTOR WHO OBVIOUSLY KNOWS MORE ABOUT THE SUBJECT THAN YOU DO?
In the absence of some guidance from your instructor, try thinking about it this way:
think of your instructor as someone who has read the material about which you are writing and has some familiarity with it, but has not drawn a lot of conclusions about it and is open to new ideas. Do not assume that your instructor has any material you refer to memorized (cite specific passages and concepts, don't assume that a passing reference to them will do it).
A good instructor will not just expect you to regurgitate ideas in a paper that you have heard in class, usually just the opposite!
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Copyright 1998 Margaret Oakes
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