Assumptions about Readers' Knowledge

In much of your writing, you must assume the role of an expert on a given topic. Indeed, you may even assume that no one in your audience knows as much about the topic as you do, since otherwise there would be no point in writing about it. So how do you bring an audience up to your level?

Finding a Balance

In sharing what they know about a topic, writers often err in one of two ways: (1) They overestimate the audience's knowledge, or (2) they give the audience too little credit. If you don't explain enough, your audience will be lost and unable to appreciate your argument. If you explain too much, your audience may feel that you are "talking down" to them and be insulted. So how do you strike a balance between too much and too little?

First, ask yourself how much you expect the audience to know. Is the paper directed to a very limited, highly specialized audience? If so, you can expect them to know a great deal of the background for your argument. You will still want to introduce the background, but you can do it in brief. I recommend that you look at a few research journal articles for examples of this sort of writing.

If the paper is directed at a broad, non-specialized audience, you should take that audience's needs into account by providing more background and approaching technical terms more carefully. Newspaper and magazine articles are excellent examples of writing for a broad audience.

At this point, you may be thinking: "My audience is my professor, and the professor is an expert. So what's the problem?" Remember, though, that your instructor may want you to write with another audience in mind, perhaps an audience that hasn't attended your class discussions. Some seminar leaders ask students to write papers that would be approachable by almost any reader. In such cases, your paper's "intended audience" is different from its actual audience, and you will have to adjust your presentation accordingly.

Let's continue this discussion by looking at how to provide relevant information to your intended audience.

Awareness of Audience

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