“I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone.” – John Cheever
I’m writing this post primarily for the college students taking my composition courses. Because this is a public blog, people other than my students will undoubtedly read this – and they are very welcome to whatever lessons they can draw from this post – but I wanted to explicitly acknowledge that my students are my intended audience. Who are my students? They are a racially, ethnically and nationally diverse group of people, typically between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, who are taking community college courses so that they can transfer into four-year programs or so that they can earn professional credentials. For many of these students, English is a second language. Additionally, a majority of these students work or are taking care of families in addition to taking classes. These students typically have limited experience as writers outside of the writing that has been required of them for high school and college classes.
Why am I belaboring this point? Because one of the factors that differentiates a proficient writer from a novice writer is the proficient writer’s ability to envision his or her intended audience and to tailor his or her text accordingly. Like I’ve just done, adept writers will, on occasion, explicitly identify their intended audience. Consider the following examples.
In his preface to The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, the historian, Eric Hobsbawn writes:
The object of this book is not detailed narrative, but interpretation and what the French call haute vulgarisation. Its ideal reader is that theoretical construct, the intelligent and educated citizen, who is not merely curious about the past, but wishes to understand how and why the world has come to be what it is today and whither it is going. Hence it would be pedantic and uncalled-for to load the text with as heavy an apparatus of scholarship as it ought to carry for a more learned public. My notes therefore refer almost entirely to the sources of actual quotations and figures, or in some cases to the authority for statements which are particularly controversial or surprising. (ix)
Because Hobsbawm rather optimistically envisions his book being read by non-historians he consciously chooses to simplify his text. His ideal readers don’t require the detailed scholarly apparatus that other historians would expect. At the same time, Hobsbawm expects his reader to “intelligent and educated”. Consequently, Hobsbawm feels no need to dumb down his writing. He expects his reader to already be familiar with historical moments (“the fall of the Bastille,” for example) and with the important social theories of his time, the 1960s (Marxism, for example).
Compare Hobsbawm’s ideal reader with the ideal reader envisioned by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander writes in her preface:
This book is not for everyone. I have a specific audience in mind—people who care deeply about racial justice but who, for any number of reasons, do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration…. I am also writing it for another audience—those who have been struggling to persuade their friends, neighbors, relatives, teachers, co-workers, or political representatives that something is eerily familiar about the way our criminal justice system operates, something that looks and feels a lot like an era we supposedly left behind, but who have lacked the facts and data to back up their claims. It is my hope and prayer that this book empowers you and allows you to speak your truth with greater conviction, credibility, and courage.
Put bluntly, Alexander’s book is not for white supremacists, who are unlikely to believe her arguments or be moved by the stories she tells. Nor is this a book for a much larger group of Americans who believe that there is no race problem or that the narratives of racial injustice have been exaggerated. Alexander is writing for a sympathetic, informed audience that is passionate about social justice. This book is also clearly intended for an educated readership that is willing to consider taking action on social justice issues; readers who are “struggling to persuade their friends, neighbors, relatives, teachers, co-workers, or political representatives” to make changes.
Eric Hobsbawm and Michelle Alexander name their intended audiences at the onset of their texts, and it is abundantly clear that they made important stylistic and structural choices based on the needs of those audiences, but even authors who are not as forthcoming about for whom they are writing write with their audiences constantly before them. Consider, for example, the choices that J. K. Rowling made as she wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. First of all, she chose to make her protagonist a boy rather than a girl. Why? Because stories about boys are likely to be read in equal numbers by both boys and girls, whereas stories about girls, while popular among female readers, are less likely to be read by male readers. Similarly, at the advice of her publisher, Rowling used initials for her first and middle name. Richard Savill notes that, “The use of the author’s initials instead of her full name was a marketing ploy designed to make her work acceptable to boys, who actively choose not to read books by women.” Rowling’s original vocabulary, which underwent changes in the American editions of the novels, also makes clear the intended audience is British, and, more specifically, English. Finally, the fact that Harry Potter turns eleven in Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone suggests that Rowling envisioned readers who between the ages of eight and twelve.
Success as a writer requires attentiveness to one’s audience. This truism applies equally to formal academic writing and to posting an informal response on a blog or online social forum. The following example from a recent Facebook thread that I encountered neatly illustrates the dangers of misunderstanding your reader. A friend of mine had written a post saying that he missed President Obama. Another person, an army officer, responded by expressing his dislike for President Obama, and, within the matter of a few hours a full-pitched online shouting match between liberals and conservatives had commenced. The officer who had spoken poorly of President Obama responded to a female supporter of the President thusly, “Spare me your emotional, thoughtless, uninformed comments.” This writer had clearly lost sight of why he was writing. If his intent was to convince his opponent to take his views seriously then he failed miserably. In particular, he lost credibility by writing an emotional sentence demanding that she “spare [him her] emotional, thoughtless, uninformed comments.” He made several assumptions about his reader – that she was emotional (given the partisan nature of the discussion everyone seemed a little emotional, so I’ll give him that), that she was thoughtless (this was more problematic given that she had thought enough to respond to him), and that she was uninformed (this is most problematic – the officer had no way of knowing how informed she was). Given the current context where conservative politicians have been perceived as attempting to hush or silence their female liberal counterparts, the man’s phrasing came off, at best, as tone deaf, and, at worst, as patronizing and dismissive. The man had lost the opportunity to persuade her, probably one of the few people who disagreed with him but who was willing to read his posts, and, I imagine, he had lost the respect of more moderate readers.
To be clear, I am making a number of assumptions about why this individual was posting in the first place. I assume that he wrote his post because he wanted to convince others on Facebook that President Obama’s presidency was, in fact, a massive failure. Given that the original post was nostalgic about the former president, this writer must, on some level, have understood that he was writing for an audience that would include people who disagreed with him. Given this context, he would have had more success if he had tempered his language to respectfully express his opinions. Of course, I may be wrong about my assumptions regarding why he wrote as he did. Perhaps he merely wanted to vent his own frustration with President Obama, in which case one wonders why he did so in a public forum and and why he engaged so vociferously with people with whom he clearly disagreed. Alternatively, perhaps his post was neither an attempt to persuade people with opinions that differed from his, nor an emotional catharsis for his outrage; perhaps it was an attempt to encourage people who shared his values. If that was the goal, then the writer did succeed – a number of other posters spoke approvingly of his post and denounced President Obama.
I, too, engaged in some of the conversation in this post. I tried to be the voice of moderation, and, where possible I tried to ask questions or provide links to news reports and studies relevant to the efficacy (or lack thereof) of President Obama’s administration. Eventually I found myself in a conversation with the officer that seemed to be deteriorating. I pulled back and tried to think of something that the officer, my reader, and I might have in common. It dawned on me that the day before had been the 4th of July, and that my reader was a conservative (he identifies as a Constitutional Conservative on Facebook) and a soldier. In my next response to him I took the time to remark that the day before we had celebrated our independence and that it was thanks to soldiers like him that we remained free and that the freedom he had defended allowed for our heated argument. I then continued with the points I was making to counter his earlier response. He never replied after that. I’m certain that I didn’t convince him of anything. It’s possible that I simply wore him out, but it’s also possible that he saw in me what I saw in him – a shared set of values. I like to think that the advantage I had over him was that I had envisioned my reader and had written to him instead of at him. In any event, by the time I wrote my last post my goal for writing had changed. I was no longer trying to convince my reader that President Obama was not the dishonorable person he had portrayed the president to be. I was simply trying to encourage an ongoing, respectful dialogue between two people who were never likely to agree politically. If we were able to show each other mutual respect while disagreeing I would consider that a small victory.
My point, dear reader, is this, next time you’re going to write an essay, an email, or a Facebook post, take the time to try to understand who your reader is. Write with your reader in your mind. Think about what he or she already knows and doesn’t need to be told. Think about how your vocabulary, your sources and the arrangement of your ideas are likely to impact your reader. Ask yourself, why has this reader committed the time and effort necessary to read something that I’ve written, and how do I repay him or her?