Tips and Tricks: Helping Students Think about Audience in Writing

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Good writing needs to consider its audiences – but when it comes to academic writing, it can be hard to break students out of the mindset that all their writing is simply meant for their professor. This can make it hard to help them develop the skills and strategies needed to write for different audiences both in and outside their academic classrooms. In this post, I’m highlighting a few tips and tricks for helping students think about how they consider audience in their writing already, and for helping them bring those strategies into their classroom writing more consciously.

Pair them up: Design a low-stakes or short assignment where students have a specific classmate as their intended audience. Students can first discuss their interests, background, existing knowledge about the topic, etc, with each other – giving them some concrete considerations to keep in mind as they write. Afterwards, partners can give peer feedback rooted in their specific position as the intended audience, allowing the author to see firsthand the success and limits of their efforts to write for their audience.

I’ve found that this particularly helps students understand the importance of engaging their audience. When they’re writing for you, their professor – or even an imagined professional audience, like a journal or nonprofit – students tend to forget that good writing doesn’t just convey information, it engaged the reader as well. When they’re addressing a specific peer, and hear feedback about that peer’s reading experience, it often hits home that the form of their writing can matter to an audience just as much as its function.

Rewrite something together: Find or create a short passage clearly written for a particular audience: something from an entry-level textbook, a patient brochure, a technical manual. Analyze it as a class, pulling out all the choices that reflect its intended audience – word choice, degree of background info, rhetorical appeals used, etc. Then set students lose to rewrite the passage for a different audience, asking them to think about those same choices. You can give them all the same audience, or divide them up and give different audiences to different sections of the class. This activity also works well with pairs or groups of three, with students re-working the passage together.

This activity works best if you’ve already had some discussions about audience in writing with the class before diving in. This could take the form of lightly analyzing the intended audience of other readings in the course, or discussing what difference audiences writers in this field might need to address at different points in their work – for example, in a science class, discussing the need to write for other specialists as well as crafting press releases about results for the press, or writing about their work for the general public.

Show them what they already know: Our students come to us already capable of navigating shifting audiences in both academic and personal contexts – but they often don’t realize that’s what they’re doing, making it harder to draw on those skills deliberately. By drawing attention to the moves they’re already making, we can give them confidence in extending those skills to new settings.

Social media posts are a natural way into this idea. Most of our students are already savvy navigators of audience in online contexts, managing multiple social media accounts – sometimes within the same platform – that each address a different audience. Prompt students to write freely for five or six minutes about who their primary audience is for their different social media platforms/accounts, and what their posting habits are. In discussing the results, draw attention to the way that perceived audience shapes what they write and share in each space; ask them how they decide what kind of post will land best with those readers. Transition back to the page by pointing out how those same instincts can help them reach an audience in academic and professional writing situations as well.

I’d love to hear from you if you try any of these out – drop me a line and let me know how it went. Happy teaching!

-Becca Tarsa Harcourt-