“Audience” and Student Writing

Posted on by Brooke

To whom should a student imagine herself writing, when doing her course work? At least, she’ll want to know how much knowledge of the subject matter she can presuppose on her reader’s part. Further, a writer naturally imagines a hearer: an interlocutor to her line of reasoning, a narratee to her narration.

In my experience, the usual reflex is to imagine the professor as the audience. This makes a kind of sense: the work is actually to be read by the professor, of course. And, the professor created the assignment in the first place, so doing the thing feels like an “answer” to that.

However, many students will already know some drawbacks of imagining the professor as their reader. For one thing, the professor’s knowledge of the field of study will usually so far exceed the student’s that the student has no idea what prior knowledge or presuppositions to assume for that reader…not to mention the creeping fear that the prof will know some bit of data that totally demolishes whatever line of reasoning the student has gone out onto the limb with in her writing. Further, the student may have negative, fearful, or ambivalent feelings about the professor. The conditions for good writing are delicate, and as easily frightened away as shy woodland creatures: the imposing shadow of the prof-as-reader can all too easily paralyze the writer before she can really get started.

At the same time, I don’t think that the utterly uninformed layperson—what I think of as the “tabula rasa” audience—is a much better alternative. If the imagined audience has no prior knowledge of the subject matter, then the student writer feels compelled to explain every little thing to the nth degree…and the work becomes unmanageable. Also, this “tabula rasa” audience is rather amorphous. I prefer a nice, clear audience in my head.

For my part, I suggest that in their writing, my students imagine a strong colleague as their audience. That is, some one (or two, or three) classmates who have kept up on the reading, heard the lectures, participated in the discussions, and have sought to make connections between the different elements of the subject matter. This solves the question of prior knowledge: the writer does not have to explain every little thing, but insofar as her research has led her to information not covered in class, she should bring that data into relation with her classmate’s body of knowledge. The “strong colleague” is (or can be) a positive figure to hold in one’s mind, and emulating that mental audience is an attainable goal: the “strong colleague” is like the writing student herself at her imagined best. In the writing that she is doing at that point in time, the “strong colleague” represents the best of what she is trying to be.

What do you think of the “strong colleague” as an imagined audience for student writing? What sorts of audiences have you imagined for yourself when you write, and with what results?