Writing to your audience

The students I work with often ask questions like the following:

–Should I start the introduction of my thesis proposal with some statistics about the topic (e.g. “Seventy percent of first generation students experience…” or “Over 90% of older adults are faced with….”)?

–Should I start my statement of purpose with a story or anecdote?

–Should I say something like [insert statement here]?

–Does this sentence sound good here?

Surprisingly, all of these questions can usually answered by applying the same method: identifying your audience (that is, your readers) and anticipating their needs.

As Larry McEnerney, the now-retired former Director of the University of Chicago’s Writing Program, states in his excellent video lecture on “the craft of writing effectively,” both the writing you did in your K-12 education and the writing you did for your BA/BS degree was probably mostly about YOU. For example, you were writing to your teachers to show them that you’d thought through a topic or engaged with some text. It was about YOUR thinking.

But in research and professional writing—the kind of writing that you often have to do in grad school—the writing is NOT about you. It’s about your reader. You shouldn’t be trying to show your reader something about YOUR thought process (e.g. that you thought through a topic or that you have something smart to say about a topic). Your reader doesn’t care about that. Why would they? Your reader cares whether you can provide something valuable to THEM. So, if you want people to read your writing and be impressed by it, your goal should be to provide value for your readers.

But how do you do that? How do you provide value to your readers?

You have to figure out what your readers want and/or what interests them. And that’s what writing to your audience is: writing in a way that successfully anticipates, and fulfills, your readers’ needs and desires regarding your text.

However, your readers’ needs and desires will be different depending on what kind of text you’re writing. So, you’ll need different approaches for different types (or categories or genres) of writing.

As McEnerney puts it:

No advice about writing makes any sense unless you’ve clarified who’s reading it and the function of the text.

According to McEnerney, most advice about writing is text-based: advice about what the text should look like. Examples of text-based writing advice include: “Don’t use jargon.” “Have a thesis sentence.” “Don’t use passive verbs.”

But, as he says, text-based advice on its own doesn’t make sense. The only way to know whether a particular piece of text-based advice is true or helpful is to answer the following questions:

Who will be reading my text? Why will they read it (what is their purpose in reading it)?

If you can answer those questions, you’ll be able to figure out whether any particular piece of text-based advice is relevant or helpful. And you’ll be able to start answering for yourself the questions that I listed at the top of this page.

The rest of this page offers various resources on writing to specific audiences in specific contexts. But a great way to jump-start your learning on “writing to your audience” in general is to watch McEnerney’s lectures in their entirety (click the hyperlinked titles below to access the YouTube videos):

The Craft of Writing Effectively

Writing Beyond the Academy

You can access the handout for “The Craft of Writing Effectively” by clicking here.

I also recommend checking out my Style and Clarity page, which provides helpful advice on writing clearly so that your audience can get the most out of your text.

Writing to your audience: Advice for students in STEM and other technical disciplines.

Below are the slides for my workshop on writing to your audience. The workshop offers mainly text-based advice for students writing academic texts in technical disciplines (e.g. science, math, engineering, tech, philosophy, linguistics). The goal of this advice is to help you write about complex topics clearly without sacrificing rigor. However, keep in mind McEnerney’s point discussed above: Whether my text-based advice will make sense for you depends on your intended audience and their reason for reading your text.

My slides borrow heavily from the Duke Graduate School Scientific Writing Resource. I highly recommend this resource as well.

The rest of this page offers some tips for specific genres of writing.

Video: Workshop Recording (52 min)

You can view or download a recording of my workshop on Audience (from November 2, 2020) here or by clicking on the image below:

See also the video posted on my page on “3 Basic things” that all students should know about.

Note: The browser plays a 1-hour preview. For videos longer than 1 hour, download the file and watch it from your computer (Steps: 1. Click on the video to open the Dropbox video page. 2. Use the “download” button, usually located on the top left of the page).

Writing to your audience: Class Papers

Who will be reading them? Your professor(s).

Why are your professors reading them? Because it’s their job to.

As I alluded to above, your professor is a paid audience. They don’t read your papers for fun. They do so as part of their job. The problem is that this arrangement can inadvertently train you to write in ways that ignore the needs of the audience, because you don’t need to retain your professor’s attention. Your professor’s attention is guaranteed.

Nevertheless, even writing for the classroom can benefit from thinking about audience. For example, you might think: “My professor (my audience) said that I need to carefully summarize Nagel’s argument in one page. So, I better use carefully constructed paragraphs that start with topic sentences so I can clearly and concisely reconstruct the argument of Nagel’s 20-page paper.” 

Or, you might think: “My professor (my audience) asked me to reflect on what I learned during the clinical observation. Here, I probably don’t need to worry too much about thesis statements or topic sentences [although you still might worry a little: even a personal reflection should be well-structured]. I just need to be honest, show self-awareness, and make connections between my experiences and the theories we’ve been learning about.”

With these examples in mind, I can offer a kinder, gentler answer to “Why do your professors read your papers?” They do so to see whether you’ve done what they asked you to do in the essay prompt (and/or what they told you during class). Some common things that professors want you to do are:

–Show them that you did the required reading

–Show them that you thought carefully about the reading and made connections between it and other assigned reading from earlier in the course

–Show them that you can write in clear, discipline-appropriate prose about the topic. You can learn a lot about “discipline-appropriate prose” by looking at examples of successful student writing. As I describe in more detail on my “Lit Reviews” page, one good source of such examples are theses or dissertations written by recently-graduated students in your discipline. If you’re a CSULB student, you can access published theses by visiting the Thesis & Dissertation Office site. When learning from examples, follow Mike Bunn’s excellent advice on “How to Read Like a Writer.” This video by Professor Undertree discusses the main points of Bunn’s article.

–Follow the prompt exactly! With class papers, it’s usually pretty easy to figure out what the professor wants. The syllabus or essay prompt will tell you exactly what you need to do.

Writing to Your Audience: Professional and Research writing (e.g. thesis, dissertation, journal article)

Who will be reading it? Experts in your discipline. In some cases, the general public.

Why will they read it? Because they expect to find information or ideas that are valuable to them. If they don’t quickly find such value, they will stop reading.

How do you create value for your readers? There are several ways. Here are some (courtesy again of McEnerney):

–Make arguments. Try to persuade readers. Early on in the paper, it can even be a good idea to start directly: “This paper will argue that…” or “This paper attempts to answer the question… “ (both Larry McEnerney and Wendy Belcher have suggested including such clear statements of your argument). But notice that it’s usually less effective to say, “This paper discusses” or “This paper is about,” because these statements are NOT about the reader. They are about you. You will be telling the reader something that you know. But why should the reader care about what you know? Instead, you want to offer value to the reader by answering a question that the reader has.

–Challenge the reader: “In this field we tend to think… However, this view is unrealistic because…” or “It is commonly argued that X. But recent discoveries in the field show that X is inconsistent with common, deeply-held beliefs like Z.” Such statements are polite ways of telling the reader: “I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong.” If you master this polite style of telling the reader “you’re wrong,” your writing will offer immense value to readers. Imagine telling a doctor, “The most common treatment for disease X is drug Y, but I will argue that drug Y is dangerous and is killing people.” That claim is impossible to ignore. Your audience (doctors) will almost HAVE to read on to learn about your evidence and arguments for this incendiary claim.

–Offer value directly to readers: “You need to solve X problem. Y can provide the solution.” This type of writing is more common in popular and business writing than in academic writing. For example, “Many businesses have trouble recruiting and maintaining repeat customers. This paper describes a highly-effective method of repeat customer recruitment using…” Or, “Many graduate students struggle with depression and anxiety. This paper discusses some highly effective techniques for reducing depression and anxiety by…” Open the paper with what the readers need. Then show them your intended solution.

–Be entertaining. One easy way to do so is to create a sense of urgency. People value reading about emergencies, crises, paradoxes, conflicts, tensions, and disasters. For example, people have a well-known negativity bias which makes conflicts or disasters more interesting. Is this advice cynical? Perhaps. But it’s also realistic and highly effective.

In short, from the very first sentence, don’t describe what you think or how you think. Talk to the reader and meet them “where they are.” Start with what the reader (your intended audience) thinks and cares about. Then politely challenge the reader, or entertain the reader, or directly offer to solve the reader’s problem.

How do you know what “polite” means in this context? It depends on your field. That’s why it’s important to read widely in your discipline and to learn from it by “reading like a writer” (as mentioned above).

Writing to your audience: Résumés

Who will be reading it? No one. No one really “reads” résumés. But the job search committee (maybe your future boss) will skim over it quickly.

Why will they read skim it? To see if they should interview you. They figure this out by skimming your résumé to see if you have the right qualifications.

As the technical writer Jack Molisani points out, potential employers absolutely DO NOT want a summary of everything you’ve done in your professional career. Why would they care about all that?

They don’t. They look at your résumé to figure out one thing (the only thing they care about): whether or not you have the skills and experience needed for the job. If you do, and your résumé clearly conveys this fact, they’ll interview you.

This is why you should send a specially tailored (or modified) résumé to each job. You should analyze the job posting to figure out what they’re looking for, and then show them that you have these things. So, questions like “should I list this award that I won in my sophomore year of college?” or “which should go first, my ‘honors and awards’ or my ‘special interests’?” can be answered very simply. Just ask yourself: is there anything in the job description or job posting, or anything on the employer’s website, that makes me think that they care about this particular item (award, volunteer experience, skill, certification, or anything else)? If so, include it. If not, don’t include it at all.

As far as what goes first, second, third, etc. (in other words, the order of items on a résumé), include the most important information first. As Molisani likes to say (and I stated above), no one is going to read your résumé. They will skim it quickly for the information they’re looking for. So, state that information clearly and prominently on the first page. For more information on résumés, see Jack Molisani’s “Résumé Secrets that Might Surprise You” (here and here).

For more information, see my page on CVs/Résumés.

Writing to your audience: grad school admissions essays

Who will be reading them? The admissions committee, which is usually made up of professors from the department you’re applying to.

Why are they reading them? To figure out if you’re a “good fit” for their program. Do your research interests and preparation match well with the focus, mission, and culture of the program?

For example, suppose you’re applying to a PhD program in English, and your research interests are in an exciting, edgy, interdisciplinary field (e.g. postcolonial Medieval studies with a focus on gender). In that case, you’re probably not a good fit for a somewhat conservative or traditionalist department whose faculty publish mostly on certain narrow, language-focused topics like vowel shifts in Anglo-Saxon. But you’ll probably be a good fit for programs whose faculty tend to publish papers in your intended area (or similar areas).

Your goal in writing the essay, then, is to show the admissions committee that your interests and preparation fit well with the goals and expectations of the department (and if they don’t fit well, then you probably shouldn’t be applying to that school).

So, when you have questions like, “Should I include an anecdote?” or “Should I tell them about all the times I switched majors before settling on my current major field?” ask yourself: Will including this information help my audience (the admissions committee) figure out whether I’m a good fit for the program?

Take the anecdote example. If you’re applying to a people-centered profession (e.g. education, therapy, counseling, medicine), then it might be useful to share a story that illustrates your abilities in working with people in your field (e.g. a story that illustrates your excellent “bedside manner” with patients or your cultural competence in reaching students from a diverse array of different backgrounds). But if you’re applying to an MS in applied physics, a story is probably not necessary and might even be viewed as trite or gimmicky. For physical science programs, the admissions committee readers are probably much more interested in your research interests, research experiences, conference presentations, and other examples of professional, specialized involvement in your field—not what a kind person you are or how well you get along with people.

In fact, even in people-centered “helping professions,” the essay readers are not very interested in general “soft skills” like “I am very empathetic,” “I work well in teams,” or “I am a good listener.” Such skills are assumed. If you were a criminally-violent sociopath who couldn’t get along with people, you probably would not be able to finish a college degree, hold down a job or clinical internship, or secure letters of recommendation. There are always exceptions, of course. But possible exceptions underscore an even more important point: ANYONE can SAY that they are a good listener. How will you “show” this rather than just saying it? Answer: By being more specific and focusing on professional skills. For example, “One of the achievements I’m most proud about is using my cultural competence and language abilities to forge connections with my diverse inner-city students, who come from disparate backgrounds. For example, one of my students last year, call her Chen, is a recent immigrant from Shanghai. I was able to immediately make a connection with her because of my years studying Mandarin…” The story will go on to show a specific example that illustrates your people skills, rather than just stating them. For more information on this topic, see my page on “Admissions Essays.”

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