Torn Between Orienting a Little and a Lot? Try Identifying Multiple Audiences

When drafting a piece of academic writing, it is common to get stuck on decisions that involve Orienting your reader. For instance, you might feel torn between laying out a lot of context for your reader or just a little; it may feel like you need to do both, and yet it seems like you have to make an impossible decision and choose to do just one. If you find yourself getting stuck in this way, it may be due to the fact that some part of you is trying to address more than one audience even as the greater part of you isn’t thinking about that distinction. In other words, it may be that you’re feeling an impulse to communicate your intervention to multiple audiences, some of whom need less orienting and some of whom need more.

The exercise in this entry will help you identify your audiences so that you can manage multiple orienting needs in a more strategically effective way. You will need a sheet of paper and a pen or pencil.

Step 1: On a piece of paper, draw a dot surrounded by three concentric circles. The dot in the center represents the specific scholarly conversation you’re engaging within your piece of writing (that is, the people reading and writing about this exact discussion/debate about this exact topic). Use the concentric circles to represent greater and greater distance from that conversation. For example, the inside of the first circle could represent people in your discipline and the space outside the largest circle could represent the non-academic public.

Now, try to identify some of the interest groups that might want to read your piece and represent them with a dot, placing that dot in an appreciate area someone within your concentric circles. An interest group might be people in a specific subfield of your discipline, or people in your discipline participating in a different-but-related scholarly conversation. A more distant interest group might be people from a different discipline involved in a similar conversation of their own. You might even want to identify an interest group that needs to be placed outside the largest circle.

Step 2: Look over the interest groups you’ve identified and choose two or three that you specifically want to write for. The dot in the center will need to be one of these by default. Now, consider these two or three audiences and decide which one needs to be your primary audience. Often, this will be the audience represented by the central dot. But sometimes that audience is very small and you know you’re primarily trying to put your work in front of a larger group than your inner-circle audience. Or you might be trying to place your article in a journal that has a wider target audience. In that case, you may want to identify a more “distant” audience as your main one.

Step 3: For each audience you’ve chosen to write for, write up a two-column list. In one column, list the kinds of knowledge/information with which you can expect them to be very familiar. In the other column, list the kinds of knowledge that will be less familiar to them. Do this for each of your designated audiences.

Step 4: Now that you’ve done all of this legwork, go back to your draft and review it.

As you write and revise, keep in mind the orienting needs of your primary audience first and foremost. If that main audience needs context, you will need to include it in the body of your text. If a time comes up when you suspect secondary audiences will need some orienting even though your primary audience won’t, consider doing that orienting in a footnote.