Contingency: How We Situate Writing to Create Meaning
Understanding your audience is a crucial element of effective public communication. It is impossible to reach absolutely everyone, however. Thinking about how to avoid alienating people produces a more effective picture of your audience. In argumentative writing, try to convince a slightly skeptical reader. By trying to reach someone who has a feeling you’re wrong but can be convinced, you’ll cast the broadest possible net to draw in your audience. This way you’ll reach people who have no opinion as well as those who are inclined to agree with you. You will never reach people who are vehemently opposed to your point of view, so don’t worry about them. For the rest of your audience, there are several factors to consider.
“You” and “We”
Avoid directly addressing your readers as “you” or including them in a “we” statement. In speaking, when people say “you” they most often mean “everyone” or “most people.” Writing needs to be more formal than speaking. Using “you” and “we” also makes assumptions about your readers that may not be true. In directly addressing you in this piece, I’m assuming you are a student in a writing class at SLCC, which is a fair assumption. If someone were to write: “you need to practice better study habits” in a paper for class, however, it assumes that the only readers are other students, which is not the case for the person grading the paper. Another danger in using “we” is assuming your readers have the same likes and tastes that you do. If a student were to write, “We all enjoy going to Olive Garden,” they have excluded anyone who does not enjoy that restaurant.
In college writing, you also want to avoid using overly informal phrases that are more appropriate to spoken English. For example, if you want to object to how an author dismisses an idea, don’t say, “She hates on her opposition too much.” Similarly, you don’t want to disagree with an idea by saying, “It’s a load of crap.” Think of the language you would use in a formal spoken presentation rather than the way you often discuss ideas in class.
Tone: Implicit Bias
There are important ethical considerations surrounding how you name groups of people in society, especially ones who are different than you. To avoid the sexist assumption that all readers are male, it is now acceptable to use “they” as a singular pronoun when the gender of your subject is indeterminate or unknown. For example, it’s preferable to say “If a student does keep up with the work, they might fail” over “If a student does keep up with the work, he might fail” or “If a student does keep up with the work, he or she might fail.” When it comes to minority groups in the US, try to use a term the group themselves would use to describe themselves. For example, the generally accepted term for people descended from slaves brought to the US against their will is “African Americans.” Some people are also okay with the term “Black.” You would never want to refer to this community as “blacks,” however, because that is using an adjective rather than a noun to name them. This subtle grammatical shift entails a lack of respect.
What Do People Already Think About Your Topic?
Another way to consider how to avoid alienating readers comes from considering the public conversation around your topic that already exists. If you are writing on a controversial issue such as gun law reform, you know most people already have a strong opinion one way or the other. You want to use measured, balanced language to avoid alienating either side. If you are writing about a topic that is unfamiliar to most readers, you need to spend time giving definitions and context early on to orient them. However, if you start by saying “Dictionary.com define addiction as …” you are insulting your audience by implying they might not know the meaning of this common term. If you are unsure what people already know and think about your topic, poll other members of this class to find out.
Different genres of writing use different strategies to reach their audiences. A “genre” is a “type” of writing. Genre is more commonly used in classifying music and movies, so they make a good metaphor for thinking about audience in terms of genre.
The analogy here is considering what are the demographics for a given genre of music. Consider for example the hip-hop mogul Jay Z. When most people think of his target audience, that might say things like “urban” or even “ghetto” people. The first problem here is that these are too often code words for “African American.” This is biased on two levels: assuming all his listeners are Black and assuming all Black people are poor. But even within this narrow subset of his fans, these assumptions miss an important point: could Jay Z be a billionaire if only poor African Americans consumed his music? Does this group have that amount of disposable income? Of course not. Therefore, we need to expand our sense of his audience to anyone who values representations of lower class African American culture. People who value his narratives of his past lifestyle aren’t just the people living it. These fans are outnumbered by middle class white teenagers who respond to his stories.
Or take the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Most people’s first assumption is that they appeal only to members of the LDS church. However, anyone who appreciates religious music could easily be a part of their audience. Even non-religious people who enjoy choral or classical music could be drawn to the excellence for which the Choir is famous.
People also use genre to classify types of movies. This classification also greatly affects how movies are marketed. In the popular imagination of movie genres, there exist a highly gendered notion of how genres appeal to viewers. This assumption is embodied in the idea of the “chick flick.” However, can a movie really be successful by appealing to just over half of the population? These movies don’t succeed just because wives and girlfriends drag men to see the movies against their will. Take for example the highly successful Pitch Perfect movies. Focusing on young women in a sorority may appeal to some women, but the classic “battle” motif and nostalgia for 1980s music surely appeals to many men as well.
Or take the vastly popular superhero movies of the last fifteen years or so. Common wisdom would suggest that action movies appeal primarily to males. However, these movies could not continue to break box office records without appealing to a wide range of people of all genders.
[See also the chapter “Movies Explain the World (of Writing)” for more on film genre and audience etc.]
Constructing a picture of the audience for your writing entails avoiding the types of assumptions that could alienate large portions of them. The best way to sample your audience’s opinions, knowledge, and ideas is to ask other people in the class. Writing tutors are also great resources for figuring out how your ideas sound outside of your own head. When authors alienate readers, often they do so unintentionally. You can avoid this by being more deliberate in defining who your audience is before you start drafting a paper.