7 Considering Audience and Purpose in Academic Writing

Jenn Kepka and Melissa Elston

Learning Objectives:

  • Understand the objective of an argumentative or persuasive piece of writing
  • Demonstrate persuasive ideas that will appeal to a particular kind of reader or audience

Questions and Purpose

One of the major differences between high school and pre-college learning and the type of learning we emphasize in college is that you’re often given assignments that aren’t clear. This is done in part because instructors want to see what you can draw from an assignment; they want to see some interpretation of the topic, and there is often no one right answer to a writing assignment.

However, this can lead to confusion when you’re faced with what feels like a vague assignment that also seems to have strict grading guidelines. This assignment will help you get started in decoding college writing assignments by providing a list of questions and a checklist you can use to analyze a writing assignment before you get started.

1. Form a Question

Assignments come in a variety of ways. Sometimes, an instructor will present you with a handout that details the assignment, its expectations, and its due dates and other requirements. Sometimes, an instructor might just mention verbally in class that a term paper will be due at an assignment time. Often, you’ll be given an assignment with a set of instructions similar to this:

HISTORY 105: Write a thorough, thoughtful essay in which you discuss the major aims of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Use your textbook and in-class discussion notes as sources and guides. Include a conclusion that speculates on Lincoln’s success or failure in terms of these goals.

This assignment, which is drawn from a typical first-year history course, asks students to not only know about Abraham Lincoln but also to know about how to compose a complete, college-level essay. This can seem paralyzing. There’s so much to talk about! But we can break even this short piece of instruction down into bite-sized pieces that make tackling the assignment much easier.

First, from any assignment, we need to Form a Question. Usually, our goal will be to form a single question from the assignment. Looking at the assignment above, you can see there’s no single question already written out. Forming a question from a prompt gives you, the writer, a direction to go automatically. You can answer the question — once you have it.

So let’s compose a question.

You need to first break down the writing assignment. You can do this by highlighting the critical words. These are the words that give specific directions or show expectations.

HISTORY 105: Write a thorough, thoughtful essay in which you discuss the major aims of Abraham Lincoln’s presidencyUse your textbook and in-class discussion notes as sources and guides. Include a conclusion that speculates on Lincoln’s success or failure in terms of these goals.

These are the critical pieces that tell me what I’m going to write about. So, if I were to re-write this as a question, I might say:

What were the major aims of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency? Did he fail or succeed?

Note that you’ve wound up with two questions instead of one. That’s OK; that serves as a reminder that this assignment is asking you to do two separate things:

  • Name the goals of Lincoln’s presidency.
  • Discuss whether he met those goals.

Some college writing assignments will have questions already stated. Others, like the one above, do not. When there’s already a question, rewrite it in your own words. This will make it easier to get started.

For instance:

Assignment: Does Lincoln deserve the title “Great Emancipator?” What arguments could you put forward support this sobriquet?

Reworded: If Lincoln really deserves to be known as the “Great Emancipator,” what’s the best evidence to back that up?

Rewording this assignment makes it easier to understand. It’s a small thing, but if you’ve ever struggled with getting started on an assignment, you know that the smallest details — like unfamiliar terms (“sobriquet”) — can feel like major road blocks.

We also need to be on the look out for “why” questions. You’ll find a “why” in almost every college assignment you’re given, whether it’s written out or not. Think of the difference between these two questions:

What was the most important day in Harry Potter’s life?

What was the most important day in Harry Potter’s life, and why was it so important?

You can answer the first question with a single sentence, probably. An example of a plausible answer would be: The most important day in Harry Potter’s life was the day he became a wizard.

If someone asks you why you think that, though, you’ll have to get into an explanation — and that could take pages. Every college paper you write will be asking you to explain, prove, or show why you think something is the answer to the question being asked. Therefore, we’ll often find “and why?” added on to the end of our questions.

2. Check Your Assignment Comprehension

Often, when assignments fail, it’s not because the student completing the assignment can’t do the work that’s been assigned; it’s because somewhere along the way, something was misunderstood. In other words, it’s more likely that missing the point of an assignment will earn an F than missing a comma, and yet we tend to spend much more time worrying about grammar and spelling than we do thinking about the original understanding we have of an assignment.

To complete college work, you’ve got to start with understanding it. This is a hurdle for some of us; when a handout seems clear, or an assignment seems intuitive, we usually dive right in. However, if you’ve ever received an assignment back with a grade that confused or frustrated you, you’ll know that it’s worth it to stop and think before you get started.

Therefore, read all assignment information at least twice. Take notes on it just as you would a textbook. If there’s no handout for the assignment, create one for yourself — a typed or handwritten page that explains the guidelines and expectations as you understand them.

Using Your Question

Creating a question from an assignment opens up a possibility for conversation with classmates and your instructor about what the assignment means. You may find that instructors are resistant to answering too many specific questions about assignments because they want to encourage student writers to think for themselves. However, nearly everyone is receptive to clarifying questions.

So, in our last assignment, we came up with the question:

What were the major aims of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency? Did he fail or succeed?

A student can now take this question with them to class and ask their fellow students if they came up with a similar idea from the assignment. They could also check in with their instructor by saying, “What I understood from the assignment was that you’d like us to answer the question, ‘What were the major aims of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency? Did he fail or succeed?’”

This is also a place where a college or university writing center can come in handy. Getting an outside perspective this early can help catch minor twists or turns of language that we can sometimes miss if we’re in a hurry.

And, in case you hadn’t guessed already, this is also a big incentive for getting started on writing assignments well in advance. Most instructors will happily answer questions about an assignment a week before it’s due, but few will be so cheerful if you send a message four hours before the deadline.

3. Consider Your Audience

In any piece of writing audience must be a consideration. Most of us already do this automatically.

Consider the following scenario: You attended a Flaming Fish concert over the weekend. How would you tell the following audiences about your experience at the show?

  • A parent
  • A best friend
  • Other Flaming Fish fans in an internet forum

Let’s take this scenario further. Imagine you attended the concert not as a fan, but as a newspaper entertainment reporter. How would you tell your general readership about your experience at the show? What language would you use? How would it differ from the language you used with your parent, friend, or fellow fans?

When you think about the person or people who will be hearing/reading your story, you are considering your audience. Audience considerations apply when approaching any speaking or writing task — including college-level writing assignments.

Considering Audience: Primary and Secondary Audiences

This consideration of audience is vital in all writing. Consider the different language you use when writing a paper for a class versus when you send a text message to your friend, or the different way you might talk in the parking lot with a few classmates versus how you speak in front of your teachers.

Thinking about the audience can also make it easier to get started on an assignment. In any writing assignment that will be graded, your primary audience will be the instructor who reads the final product of the paper. “Primary,” here, means “most important.” However, most papers have secondary audiences, too, that will also need to be considered.

For instance, in a writing class, you may be asked to submit your papers to at least one round of peer review or peer workshop before turning them in for a final grade. That means your classmates will be a secondary audience.

How does that change your assignment? Well, for some of us, there are topics that we wouldn’t choose to discuss with our classmates (particularly at the beginning of a term when we don’t know each other well). In addition, you can also assume that your classmates will have certain knowledge in common with you (for instance, they’ll know about the campus and some general student information), but you can usually also assume they won’t know much about other topics (your personal life, for example). That means you’ll need to consider this as you write your paper.

Knows/Doesn’t Know

In our history class, you could assume that everyone in class has the same knowledge about Abraham Lincoln because you’ve all completed the same readings and heard the same lectures. You can also safely assume your instructor has completed those readings. This means you won’t need to start your paper with a one-page summary of who Abraham Lincoln was (unless you’re asked).

However, you probably don’t all have the same opinions about Lincoln, which means you’ll need to spend more time in your writing explaining why you think the way you do.

When thinking about your audience, you can make a “Knows/Doesn’t Know” chart to figure out what you’ll need to include and what you can skip. Create a row for each audience, and then create a column for what they know and don’t know. Write your question at the top of the paper as a reminder. Then list ideas, facts, and issues that you think your audience might know or might not know or agree with.

The Doesn’t Know column will be the place to work on for most of your writing.

Audience Knows Doesn’t Know
Primary: My history instructor More than I do about Abraham Lincoln My thoughts/interpretation of his leadership

Whether I’ve understood the reading/lectures

Secondary: My classmates About the same stuff I do about Lincoln My thoughts

The connections between what we read here and what I learned in psychology class


Online Writing and Audiences

One final consideration for audience comes with the new territory of online classes and class interaction. Anymore, much of our writing starts or ends up online. It is important to remember that any writing done online has a third, potential audience: Anyone. Think how easy it is to accidentally forward an e-mail to someone else (or to reply-all when you mean to only write back to one person). It’s also very easy to copy and paste someone else’s text and send it elsewhere. Even “friends-only” communications on sites like Facebook can easily be copied and shared without the writer’s permission.

The same is true for text you write in college classes. When you participate in a forum, share work online, or send electronic correspondence, it’s possible (though not likely) that your work can be shared to a broader audience than you intended.

So, should we all walk around in a paranoid bubble? Should we go back to writing only on typewriters and hand-delivering our work to other people? Clearly not! But do remember that the things you write today may be accessible in 5 months or 5 years. Put in the effort to communicate clearly your true thoughts, and don’t put into writing anything you wouldn’t be comfortable having shared with others.

On this note, your class may ask you to write beyond your comfort zone in some topics from time to time. Please be gentle and respectful with classmates’ work, and do not share their stories beyond the safe space of your course. Expect them to do the same for you. Speak with your instructor if you have questions about the confidentiality of your work.

4. Consider Your Purpose

As we head into any piece of writing, we always have a purpose in mind. Most of us would say that our purpose in completing any assignment is along the lines of “getting this done,” “getting a good grade,” or maybe, in the best case, “learning more about the topic.” When we’re analyzing an assignment, we look at the purpose that the assignment’s creator had in mind. For instance, when you’re assigned to write a book report over a novel that the entire class has read, why are you assigned to write it? Is it because the teacher hasn’t read the book and wants to learn what happens? (Let’s hope not!) Or is there something that instructor wants you to learn from writing the report?

If we can figure out that purpose underneath our assignments, then we can better answer the questions being asked and meet the requirements. So, when faced with a writing assignment, ask yourself: What does the teacher want to learn from or about me in this assignment? What does she want to see that I can do?

In the Abraham Lincoln assignment we’ve been working with, what does the instructor most likely want to know about her students?

Common Purposes

There are several common purposes that exist for college (and all) types of writing. Some common purposes are:

  • To Summarize
  • To Respond
  • To Explain
  • To Inform
  • To Persuade
  • To Illustrate
  • To Entertain
  • To Compare or Contrast
  • To Show Causes or Effects
  • To Classify or Divide
  • To Tell a Story

Writing composition talk classes talk about the ways that certain styles of writing can automatically fit with these purposes. That means that, once you’ve figured out the purpose of a piece, you may be able to quickly fit the writing to a pre-set outline or type of writing.

For instance, in our Abraham Lincoln example, I know I’ll be asked to explain and persuade. There are two essay formats that fit neatly to that purpose, so I could begin my outline almost immediately. Likewise, when I’m asked to tell a story, I’m almost always going to be using time order — so I can immediately begin organizing the way that I’ll work.


Adapted from Better Writing from the Beginning by Jenn Kepka, CC BY 4.0 


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From College to Career: A Handbook for Student Writers Copyright © by Jenn Kepka and Melissa Elston is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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