[A] work of rhetoric is pragmatic; it comes into existence for the sake of something beyond itself; it functions ultimately to produce action or change in the world; it performs some task. In short, rhetoric is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action. The rhetor alters reality by bringing into existence a discourse of such a character that the audience, in thought and action, is so engaged that it becomes mediator of change (3-4).

— Lloyd F. Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation”

Constructing the Audience

Everything we write has an audience—the person or people we address with our words. Even a private journal is addressed to a future version of the writer’s current self. To a large degree these audiences will determine what we say and how we say it.

It is easy to jump too quickly to the immediate purpose of our writing—the idea we want to articulate or the viewpoint we hope to convince others to adopt. In doing so we forget that how we say something is as important as what we say, particularly when we address people who don’t share our values, culture, or life experiences. The presentation of our argument—the kinds of evidence we use to support it, the words we choose to articulate it—must be tailored for our audience if we hope to be successful.

The nature of audiences is often elusive and complex. We may never completely understand the character and motives of our audience members; this imperfect knowledge presents a great challenge for writing arguments. Your audience members may hold views or beliefs that, while quite opaque, greatly determine their receptiveness to your message. And in some cases your audience may be completely unknown to you—for example, if you write for the web. Thus, imagining the audience for your message is often not an easy task; it is something that you will have to make a judgment about using whatever evidence you happen to possess at the time.

Before you write anything, carefully analyze those people whom you desire to persuade. To the best of your knowledge, take an inventory of what you know about the audience (or audiences) you plan to address in your writing. This analysis should give you insight into how best to present your thinking, reasoning, and evidence. You might begin an audience analysis by asking questions such as these:

  • Who is your audience or audiences?
  • What are their values?
  • What educational background(s) do they have?
  • What political views do they hold?
  • What ideas or commonalities do you share with them?
  • What does your audience already know about the topic you plan to present?
  • What form will your audience expect that your writing will take? (For example, if the writing occurs within a specific academic discipline, your writing will need to adopt to the preferred style for that discipline: MLA, Chicago, APA, etc.)

Questions like these can help us imagine the audience we address in our writing and gain a sense of the rhetorical situation we face. This kind of intelligence will help us make good decisions about many aspects of the writing process such as organization, diction, tone, style, and evidence.

Persuading the Audience

While there are many types of writing, the kind you will do in college is largely concerned with argumentation and persuasion; it is a form of reasoned discourse designed to change the audience’s mind or cause them to adopt some new idea or plan of action. As you analyze your audience, imagine how these particular people will respond to the argument(s) you plan to present to them. For example:

  • What sorts of constraints do you envision in getting your audience to accept your argument?
  • If your intended audience already has known positions you oppose, how can you work carefully to convince them that their views should change?
  • What sorts of things should you avoid presenting in your message?
  • What common values or beliefs can be used to make your views more appealing and consistent with your audience’s outlook?
  • How can you establish rapport with your audience, based on what you know?
  • How can you demonstrate that you are an authority on the issue or problem at hand?

Done properly, an audience analysis will help you craft your argument more effectively, adopt a proper tone, use appropriate vocabulary, and avoid any rhetorical missteps that may alienate your readers.

Addressing a broad audience

In college your audience will most often be your professor and fellow class members. However, when you write you should learn to address a more general audience. This means that you will not take certain things for granted as you write and ensure that you provide good contextual information designed to help your readers gain clear understanding.

For example, while your professor knows the authors and readings he or she assigned in the class very well, when you reference them in your writing you should take care to introduce them, thus addressing a more expansive audience who may not be familiar with the texts or authors in question. To illustrate, consider the following two sentences:

Poor awareness of audience needs

1. As we talked about in class, Freire argues that banking can be undemocratic and oppressive.

  • Explanation: This sentence assumes that the audience knows certain things, namely Paulo Freire, his essay, and class discussions. However, writing the sentence in this way excludes everyone who is not taking part in this particular class. Imagine the confusion you would experience after reading this sentence if you had not taken part in the discussion of this piece of writing. You might wonder: What is “banking”? You mean my credit card company is oppressing me? Who is this Freire guy? Is he some authority I should trust? Where did he make this argument?

Good awareness of audience needs

2. In an essay entitled “The ‘Banking Concept’ of Education,” Brazilian educator Paulo Freire argues that a widely practiced form of schooling that he terms “banking education” is oppressive and undemocratic.

  • Explanation: The second sentence attempts to include a much larger audience by carefully introducing important context. By providing the author’s full name, his profession, the essay title, and the definition of key terms, the audience will feel they are being addressed by the writing, rather than excluded. Further, they will gain important contextual information that is needed for understanding and coherence.