Prewriting: Ground Zero

15 Imagining Your Audience’s Needs


One purpose for writing is to figure out what you think and believe before you share your ideas with other people. What do you want to say? What do you want to find out? What do you want to decide? Sometimes you will keep this type of writing private, but sometimes you may revise for another audience.

Your Instructor

It may seem obvious as a student that your instructor is part of your audience. Let’s take a moment to consider what expectations your instructor may have. You instructor may expect:

  • You have read any assigned material before writing. What do you need to write to show your instructor you have read this material?
  • You have understood the assignment given: Ground Zero of the Writing Process. To show this, pay particular attention to the verbs in the assignment. Are you doing the actions required? If the assignment says “analyze X,” have you done so? Do you understand what it means to analyze?
  • If assigned, you have done research for your topic. To show your research, you will want to use summaries, paraphrasing, and quotations from your sources, using appropriate citation.
  • You will use the assigned academic format, such as MLA (see the appendix titled “Resources for Working with MLA”). You will follow the instructions. Re-read the assignment to make sure you are following each step.
  • You will work hard on your assignment and spend time making it as good as possible, including spending considerable time proofreading and editing. Taking these steps shows that you are serious about your work, and that it is important enough for others to read.

Notice that fulfilling these expectations will also help you reach other possible readers of your work.

Other Students

In writing classes, students often read each other’s work and give feedback. To meet the needs of this audience, consider what they know and don’t know about your topic. When you are writing outside of a classroom situation, you might consider an audience of fellow writers or others who are involved in your project, if any.

The “General” Reader

When instructors use the term “general reader,” what do they mean? If you are given an assignment that says your audience is “the general reader,” that usually means that you are expected to write to an audience with at least some education who is aware of your topic, but not an expert on your topic. Newspapers, for example, write for a general reader, meaning that they expect a variety of people, from various backgrounds, to read the articles. That means you must consider viewpoints and experiences that do not mirror your own. When instructors talk about an academic audience, they usually mean that you must use evidence that is acceptable to a variety of educated people, using academic sources rather than popular sources, and that you will not state opinions without providing proof to support your view. Here are some questions to help you think about your topic:

  • What would a general reader know about your topic? What wouldn’t they know?
  • What kinds of evidence and reasons are acceptable to an audience that does not share the same background and beliefs as you?
  • What kinds of evidence and reason are acceptable in an academic community? Have you used academic sources? Are your sources credible?

(For guidance on finding credible sources see “Finding Quality Texts.”)

A Target Audience

Sometimes you will have the opportunity to write for a specific group of people. For example, if you are writing about a problem in your community, such as the proposed location of a new composting facility, your audience would probably be the people in your community or perhaps local officials who have the power to make the decision about the location.

If you are writing an email to your supervisor requesting a change in your work responsibilities, your audience is your supervisor—a specific person.

When you know the audience, you can anticipate the kinds of reasoning and evidence that the audience will expect, and you will know what tone and level of formality is appropriate. If you don’t know your audience well, you may need to do some research or at the very least imagine what they are like based on educated guesses.

The Opposing Viewpoint

When you make a specific type of assignment called an Argument, or use Argument rather than Persuasion in an assignment, one potential audience is the people who disagree with your opinion. To effectively present your position in face of (potential) opposition, you will need to understand their point of view and their objections to yours. Consider writing out what the opposing viewpoints are and what kinds of information would someone with the opposing view need from you in order to change their mind.

Text Attributions

  • This chapter was adapted from “Imagining Your Audience’s Needs” in The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear, which is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 Licence. Adapted by Allison Kilgannon.

Media Attributions


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Advanced English Copyright © 2021 by Allison Kilgannon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book