Common writing pitfalls: Know your audience

One common writing error I see quite frequently is the failure to know the audience.

When you’re writing a paper, it’s easy to forget that you are actually writing to someone.

For instance, your audience can be a very generalized group of readers (the Internet), you might know the individuals who compose the audience, and sometimes you write for yourself.

Keeping your audience in mind while you write can help you make good decisions about what material to include, how to organize your ideas, and how best to support your argument.

For instance, imagine if you have to explain the concept of a complicated topic such as Nuclear Physics to different individuals.  Wouldn’t the conversation go a bit differently if you were speaking to a someone with no knowledge of the subject instead of Albert Einstein?

You should not assume, however that you do not need to explain basic concepts.  If you leave out details, the reader may fill in gaps with their own knowledge and assume that you don’t know enough to convey your the ideas.  You’ll get your papers back marked with “does understand material”.

To figure out how much you need to explain ideas, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Read the prompt or assignment – very often your instructor will say what you need to do.
  2. Ask your instructor – You can demonstrate your knowledge of the subject by asking questions such as “Do you want me to explain e=MC^2, or is that not in the scope of the essay and I can assume that it’s common knowledge for purpose of explaining my ideas in this paper?”
  3. Read your own paper – Take a break and look at it again.  Often times, you’ll be working at the last minute and fill in your own gaps because the material is fresh in your mind. Taking the break will allow you to see things in a different light.
  4. Give your paper to someone else to read.  If they’re confused or frustrated, maybe you need to explain things a bit further.  Generally, I will ask for more clarification because I edit papers that range in a variety of topics and most of the works are intended for general audiences.

As you write, you should ask yourself: if someone picked up your paper off the street, would they be able to understand what you are trying to say?