How to Understand and Adapt to Audience in College Writing

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Audience is simple and complex. It is the person or group to whom you’re writing. Simple, right? But who is this person really? How do you figure out how to communicate to them most clearly and persuasively? Complex, isn’t it?

Reflect on almost any argument with a parent, sibling, spouse, or friend and you’ll quickly recognize how difficult it can be to communicate clearly even when, theoretically, you know the audience very well. You will also recognize the paramount importance of audience-awareness.

Fortunately, we can bridge the simplicity and complexity of audience.

Concrete and Imagined Audiences (Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford - Audience Addressed, Audience Invoked)

According to the influential writing theorists Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford, every piece of writing has a “concrete audience” and an “imagined audience.”

A concrete audience exists in the physical world.

It is the physical reader who will receive and read your writing. You could walk up to the concrete audience and hand them printed pages. You might even personally know the person or people in your concrete audience. Whether you are friends with the concrete audience or have never met them, you can learn a great deal about the audience with a little research, reading, and thinking.

An imagined audience exists in the writer’s imagination.

It is the writer’s idea of the reader who will receive and read the writing. Writers can’t walk up to the imagined audience, even though they might personally know the people they are imagining. Through your writing, your words, you will “bring to life” the audience that you imagine.

Every piece of writing, every writer, has both a concrete audience and an imagined audience at the same time. There are always concrete, physical readers. But when we sit down to write, those readers are seldom standing over our shoulders and asking questions or giving feedback.

When we write, we must imagine the concrete audience to whom we are writing. As we write to them, we use certain content, style, tone, phrases, or words that connect with them. The more we connect with them, the more we bring them to life.

As I write this book, for example, I know there are people in the world who want the perspective on writing that I am attempting to provide. But since I’m sitting alone at my desk, I must imagine those people and their experiences, emotions, needs, desires, and goals.

I am striving to keep the content short and to the point. I am using a conversational tone. If I were writing for a concrete audience of Composition and Rhetoric scholars, then I would imagine a very different kind of audience and I would write very differently as a result.

Here’s another example. Think about your favorite hobby, recreation, or entertainment.

Next, think about someone who shares your passion for it. Then imagine a conversation with that person. What, specifically, would you talk about? What would be of mutual interest? How would you talk about it?

Now, imagine discussing the same subject with someone who knows nothing about it. How would you explain it to that person? How would the conversation’s content change? How would its tone and style change? How would you get this audience to be interested in the topic?

In each of these examples, there is a concrete audience that exists in the physical world. You can learn about this audience through interacting with them. There is an imagined audience that the writer builds in his or her mind, a mental model if you will.

Writers try to engage the imagined audience so that they can communicate effectively to the concrete audience.

Multiple Audiences (Mary Jo Reiff - Toward an Understanding of Multiple Audiences)

Following Ede and Lunsford’s lead, writing researcher Mary Jo Reiff argued that writers have multiple audiences. Where Ede and Lunsford suggested that a single audience could be simultaneously concrete and imagined, Reiff pointed out that beyond the classroom most writers have multiple audiences. Each of these audiences is both concrete and imagined.

For instance, I am aware of multiple audiences as I write this book:

  • adults who write for their jobs and recognize the necessity of improving, or at least better tolerating, their writing;

  • college students who are well into their majors, struggling with writing, and learning from professors who are subject-matter experts but not writing teachers;

  • college students who are just beginning classes and need to pass the required writing courses;

  • high school teachers who want a concise book to help prepare their students for college entrance exams and courses; and

  • home-schooling parents who lack subject-matter expertise but want to instill effective writing abilities.

Each audience is a concrete group, and I am imagining each as I write.

Above, I wrote, “Think about your favorite hobby, recreation, or entertainment.” But originally I wrote, “Think about someone with whom you work, take classes, share a favorite school subject, or share a hobby.”

In the original, I was trying to appeal to all of my multiple audiences simultaneously. In the revision, I still appeal to all of my audiences (who doesn’t have a favorite hobby, recreation, or entertainment?) but I appeal to them more concisely.

Here’s another example. Your boss asks you to write a flyer promoting a customer appreciation party.

Who is your audience? The customers? Your boss? Your co-workers?

Your audience includes all of them. Your primary audience are the customers. Your purpose is to inform the customers about the party and encourage them to attend. But your boss is a secondary audience. The boss will want the flyer to represent the company positively, another purpose.

A shocking image and some provocative writing might grab the customers’ attention, achieving the purpose of informing the primary audience about the party, but it will not achieve the boss’s additional purpose of maintaining the company’s image. You must keep in mind both audiences and try to satisfy both of their needs.

Then there are your coworkers, who will surely use the flyer’s information to promote the event to customers. They will need to know the key details (time and location) as well as the selling points (food? games? prizes?).

We haven’t even mentioned the potential audiences who might happen to see the flyer wherever it’s posted, even though you may not have any intention of non-customers seeing the flyer or coming to the party.

Developing Audience-Awareness

To recap, every piece of writing has multiple audiences, and each audience is both concrete (a physical entity) and imagined (a mental model).

How can you develop awareness of each audience, so that you can communicate effectively to all of them at once?

Remember that each audience is concrete; therefore, you can learn about each audience through some simple interactions.

You may have already interacted with the audience more than you realize. Presumably, you will have interacted with customers and your boss before being asked to write a customer appreciation party flyer. You already know these audiences through your experiences with them.

You have taken classes in history, biology, chemistry, economics, and more. So you already know the audiences of historians, biologists, chemists, economists, and academics in general by having observed, heard, and interacted with them.

Let’s say you have never interacted with a concrete audience. You were hired yesterday and already you are being asked to write a flyer for the customer appreciation party. Or you have never taken a class in fluid dynamics. Or you have never read Wired magazine (you’re missing out!).

How do you learn about audiences with whom you have never interacted?

Research and read. Locate information about, for, or by the audience, and then consume that information.

Maybe you ask your new coworkers about the customers, the boss, or both. Perhaps you call a few customers to ask what they would like to do at the party. If there is a flyer from last year’s party, then you could study how it tries to appeal to the customers, boss, and coworkers and then model your flyer after it. Best of all, you can ask some customers, coworkers, and the boss for feedback on your draft.

You could check out a book on fluid dynamics and look up some articles in trade magazines or scholarly journals. By reading this material, you will learn about fluid dynamics, but you should also observe how the material is written by and for the audience of fluid dynamics research. You can observe how the authors write about the subject, which will give you a model and also reveal the audience’s knowledge, experience, and expectations. If you can find an expert on fluid dynamics, you could get input from that person on your writing.

You can start reading some articles in Wired, noting what types of topics the magazine covers, what level of detail the articles provide, how much jargon they use, what assumptions they make about the audience’s interests, education, or expertise. You can read the magazine’s “About” page and other promotional materials to get a sense of how the magazine conceives of itself and its readers. You can find a reader of Wired, ask for feedback on the article you want to submit, and use that feedback to improve it.

In short, you can learn a lot about a concrete audience through a couple simple strategies:

  • reflecting on your interactions with them;

  • reading what they write and read;

  • noticing how they write what they read; and

  • getting feedback if possible.

Once you know more about your audience, you can imagine the audience while you write or revise your draft.

You can put yourself in the reader’s shoes and try to view your writing from their perspective.

You can anticipate where they might be confused, when they might have questions that need answered, or when they might object to what you’re saying.

You can also anticipate important expectations, needs, or goals for the audience:

  • what the audience knows about the subject;

  • what the audience does not know about it;

  • what the audience will find inherently interesting;

  • what the audience will need to be convinced is interesting or relevant;

  • what information will help the audience achieve its goals in reading;

  • what information will convince the audience of your main idea (or thesis); and

  • what kind of tone would be most engaging or appropriate.

When you can anticipate these and other needs of your multiple audiences, then you have audience-awareness. Audience-awareness is crucial to effective writing.

Where Does It Fit in the Equation?

Audience is the paramount consideration of writing. Writing can be extraordinary, but if it lacks audience-awareness, it will not communicate effectively.

Our writing equation begins as follows:

Audience-Awareness + …

To develop audience-awareness, first understand the nature of audience. It is concrete and thus knowable. It is imagined and thus a mental model. It consists of multiple people or groups, who may have different and competing expectations, needs, or goals. You learn about the audience through interaction, observation, reading, reflection, and feedback.

Once you learn about the audience, you will be able to write with audience-awareness. You can anticipate confusions, questions, or objections as well as expectations, needs, and goals. You may anticipate these things while drafting, while rewriting your draft, or both.

Here are some thought-exercises and activities to hone your audience-awareness.


Honestly, how often do we actually do the exercises at the end of the chapter unless a teacher makes us? Thought-exercises are much more likely to actually be completed, and you can do them anywhere and anytime.

  1. Imagine a shelf of magazines at a grocery store’s checkout register. Based on the covers alone, who is the target audience for each magazine? How do you know this?

  2. Think about the last thing you read. Who was the intended audience? What features in the writing make the audience clear?

  3. Still contemplating the last thing you read, think about the opposite of the intended audience. How would the writing need to change for this audience?

  4. Suppose you were asked to explain a major holiday to each of the following audiences in a way that would be most relevant and interesting.

  5. Historians

  6. Economists

  7. Psychologists

  8. Writers

  9. Military personnel

  10. Postal workers (or mail carriers)

  11. How would you change your explanation based on each audience? Why would you change it in these specific ways? How did you know how to adapt to each audience?


But of course, sometimes you want to test out your skills. For writing, this means actually writing. Try the following writing activity to practice and develop your audience-awareness.

  1. Choose an article you read or your own piece of writing. Revise that article so that it engages a different audience than originally intended or targeted.

  2. Write explanations of a major holiday to each of the audiences listed above. What information do you provide or emphasize? What level of detail and tone do you use?

  3. Choose a piece of writing that you did for work or school. List the number of potential audiences who might read it, both the intended (or primary) audience and the unintended (or additional) audiences. Explain in writing how each audience might react to or perceive the writing and how you can balance each audience’s needs.

Eric Sentell teaches writing and rhetoric. He is the author of How to Write an Essay like an Equation and Become Your Own Fact-Checker.
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