April 03, 2009

Audience analysis before writing

If you are writing to communicate to other readers, analyzing your probable audience will help you answer some basic questions:

  • How much information or evidence is enough? What should I assume my audience already knows? What should I not tell them? What do they believe? Will they readily agree with me or will they be antagonistic?
  • How should I organize my writing? How can I get my reader's attention? Can I just describe my subject and tell a story or should I analyze everything in a logical order? Should I put my best examples or arguments first or last?
  • Should I write informally, with simple sentences and easy vocabulary, or should I write in a more elaborate or specialized style, with technical vocabulary?

Analyze your audience by considering the following questions. As you learn more about your audience, the possibilities for your own role as a writer will become clearer.

  1. Audience profile. How narrow or broad is your audience? Is it a narrow and defined audience — a single person, such as your Aunt Mary, or a group with clear common interests, such as the zoning board in your city or the readers of Organic Gardening? Is it a broad and diverse audience: educated readers who wish to be informed on current events, American voters as a whole, or residents of your state? Do your readers have identifiable roles? Can you determine their age, sex, economic status, ethnic background, or occupational category?
  2. Audience-subject relationship. Consider what your readers know about your subject. If they know very little about it, you'll need to explain the basics; if they already know quite a bit, you can get right to more difficult or complex issues. Also estimate their probable attitude toward this subject. Are they likely to be sympathetic or hostile?
  3. Audience-writer relationship. What is your relationship with the readers? Do you know each other personally? Do you have anything in common? Will your audience be likely to trust what you say or will they be skeptical about your judgments? Are you the expert on this particular subject and the reader a novice? Or are you a novice and your reader the expert? (If you're a novice writing to an expert, absolute honesty and careful reliance on evidence will help win you a hearing.)
  4. Writer's role. To communicate effectively with your audience, you should also consider your own role or perspective. Of the many roles that you could play (friend, big sister or brother, student of psychology, music fan, employee of a fast-food restaurant, and so on), choose one that will be effective for your purpose and audience. If, for example, you are writing to sixth-graders about nutrition, you could choose the perspective of a concerned older brother or sister, but your writing might be more effective if you assume the role of a person who has worked in fast-food restaurants for three years and knows what goes into hamburgers, French fries, and milkshakes.

Writers may write to a real audience, or they may create an audience. Sometimes the relationship between writer and reader is real (sister writing to brother), and so the writer starts with a known audience and writes accordingly. Sometimes, however, writers begin writing and gradually discover or create an audience in the process of writing. Knowing the audience guides the writing, but the writing may create an audience as well.