🧭 The Guide
SUNY Geneseo’s Writing Guide

Audience and Purpose

“What will I say?” is probably the most important—and the most challenging—question that any writer faces. But other questions, too, demand an answer. For whom am I writing? For what purpose? Your answers to questions about audience and purpose will influence every choice that you make in writing, from organization to tone to diction to citation style.

A writer’s audience can range in size from one (consider, for example, the diarist or the letter-writer) to all humanity. Beyond the writer’s primary audience may lie a secondary one: the diarist may hope that his or her diary will someday interest all humanity. Most writers write for a fairly well defined primary audience consisting of readers who share an interest in the subject-matter: vegetarian cooking, for example, or web design, or cytokinesis.

College writers are unusual in writing for an audience that will in most cases never read them. The college writer’s reader is the professor, but the professor will typically ask the writer to write as if she or he will be read by a larger group, such as scholars of literature, history, or biology.

When trying to decide, then, how much information to provide about the plot of a novel or the laws of motion, you’ll do best if you imagine that you are writing for a roomful of people like your professor. Such people

  • don’t need to be told the basic principles or facts of their chosen discipline;
  • don’t need to be persuaded of the value or importance of the discipline or of major issues and topics within it;
  • don’t need to be to introduced to major works or figures in their field.

On the other hand, they do need to be convinced that your thesis matters—in other words, that their time is not wasted reading what you’ve written—and they usually appreciate being reminded of small facts that even a specialist may forget, such as how far the protagonist walked to get to London or how long after getting there he was arrested for stealing a handkerchief.

The purpose of a college essay will vary with the assignment. The major types of college essay reflect the different purposes that professors typically wish students to take up. The purpose of the expository essay is to convey a body of information, relate a narrative, detail a process, or explain a relationship (such as cause and effect). The purpose of a personal essay is to reflect on some aspect of the writer’s own experience.

The type of essay most commonly assigned to college writers is the persuasive essay. When you write to persuade, be sure to do the following:

  • present a clear, interesting thesis early in the essay—usually by the end of the first paragraph;
  • provide detailed evidence to support that thesis;
  • anticipate and refute arguments and evidence that would likely come up in objection to your thesis.

You can find more on audience and purpose in The Guide’s discussions of sexism and racism in language and writing.