Writing to an Audience

One of the hazards in being an English literature teacher and a reader and a writer, of being self-professedly a person interested in words and language, is that I am constantly having people ask me to edit their work, everything from resumes to entire novels.  This sometimes makes for quite interesting reading (like the novels of my friend John) and sometimes quite tedious reading (like the paper in business administration that I recently edited for a former student), but more and more frequently, it seems, it makes for very awkward reading, because so much of what comes across my desk now fails entirely to account for its audience.

Now, I am not claiming that this inability to write for an audience is a recent development, that writers are worse at writing to an audience now than they have been historically, though I really do suspect that this is the case.  I am merely observing that, at this point in time at least, much of the writing that I edit is written without any consideration at all for the sort of people who will be reading it or for the social roles that those people occupy.  I get essays that ignore any kind of academic formating, use the grossest slang and colloquialism, and appeal to ridiculously popular sources to support their arguments.  I get resumes that offer deeply personal information and that read like a twitter feed.  I get children’s stories that use vocabulary and sentence structure far above the ability of any children that I have ever encountered.  I get poetry so self-involved that it is meaningless to anyone but its author.  In short, I get writing that has no idea of what its audience might want, need, expect, or understand.

Even more troublesome, when I critique writing on this basis, these writers are almost always resistant to changing their work to accommodate their readers, and they do so more or less explicitly on the basis that it is the audience who should accommodate the author.  The assumption is that a failure in communication is always a failure on the part of the reader, never on the part of the writer, that the audience should just accept what the author writes and be happy with it, and it is very difficult to convince these writers that most readers will not actually be happy with it, that their professors will just give a poor grade, that their employers will merely throw away their resumes, that children will not be interested in their stories, and that readers will make polite conversation about their poetry and then promptly forget that it ever existed.

The fact is, however cliche it might be to say so, that as long as a piece of writing has any audience at all beyond its author, so long as it is intended to achieve any kind of effective communication, whether it be informational, persuasive, or artistic, the onus is on the author to write in ways that the audience can understand, to adhere to the conventions insofar as they are useful and necessary, to choose a tone and style that will be appealing and comprehensible, to include information that is accurate and persuasive, to maintain the appropriate distance between the author and the audience.  An author is by no means compelled to do this, of course, and may willfully choose to do otherwise for one reason or another, even at times for artistic effect, but let there be no question as to where the fault lies when the audience is confused, offended, or otherwise uninterested in reading what has been addressed to it.

1 comment
  1. Lauren said:

    This is something I encounter a lot in my professional life, with great frustration. It seems to be a particular challenge for small business owners, who have a tendency (which I can understand, as a small business person myself) to be so consumed with their business and all the details thereof that they can’t conceive of a world in which everyone else isn’t equally consumed by and knowledgeable about that specific topic. It can be a huge challenge to convince them their marketing pieces need to be made more accessible/more persuasive/more informative/more appropriate for the medium they’ve chosen/less reliant on jargon/all of the above.

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