Audience and purpose are the two most important rhetorical concepts for the student writer. Who you are writing for and what you are trying to do influence every aspect of the writing task, yet many academic assignments do not specify an audience and do not have a clear rhetorical purpose. Without this information to focus the task, you may have trouble getting started on the writing, or have trouble making decisions about what to include and what to leave out.
Imagine you are going to write a letter describing your experiences in your first quarter of college to the following people:
Would you send the same letter to each person? Would you talk about the same events? Would you leave things out of one letter that you might put in another? How would the language and style be different?
When you are writing a personal letter the audience is usually one person, often a person you know very well. In such a situation, words come easily, because audience and purpose are well-defined and familiar.
A business writing situation is usually more complex. Often you know the position and responsibilities of the reader, and the purpose of the writing, but you may not know the reader as an individual. Many real-world writing situations involve audiences that the writer must partially or wholly imagine. The ability to imagine different audiences and serve their various needs is an important measure of a writer's fluency.
Academic assignments create a situation in which a dual rhetoric is involved. There is an element of pretense, because the writing is not for a real world situation. There is usually a hypothetical, pretended, audience for the writing, in addition to the "real" audience, the instructor. The needs of these two audiences are quite different, and the conflict between the two can be confusing. For example, you may be writing an informative report, but you may feel that the instructor already knows all the information you have to present. How do you choose what to include and what to leave out if the reader already knows everything?
Parallel to the problem of dual audiences is the problem of purpose. The immediate purpose is to influence the instructor to give a good grade, but the document usually has another hypothetical function related to the assignment.
The following questions will help you identify the intended audience:
The following questions will help you discover your purpose: