“Audience” and Student Writing

To whom should a student imagine herself writing, when doing her course work? At least, she’ll want to know how much knowledge of the subject matter she can presuppose on her reader’s part. Further, a writer naturally imagines a hearer: an interlocutor to her line of reasoning, a narratee to her narration.

In my experience, the usual reflex is to imagine the professor as the audience. This makes a kind of sense: the work is actually to be read by the professor, of course. And, the professor created the assignment in the first place, so doing the thing feels like an “answer” to that.

However, many students will already know some drawbacks of imagining the professor as their reader. For one thing, the professor’s knowledge of the field of study will usually so far exceed the student’s that the student has no idea what prior knowledge or presuppositions to assume for that reader…not to mention the creeping fear that the prof will know some bit of data that totally demolishes whatever line of reasoning the student has gone out onto the limb with in her writing. Further, the student may have negative, fearful, or ambivalent feelings about the professor. The conditions for good writing are delicate, and as easily frightened away as shy woodland creatures: the imposing shadow of the prof-as-reader can all too easily paralyze the writer before she can really get started.

At the same time, I don’t think that the utterly uninformed layperson—what I think of as the “tabula rasa” audience—is a much better alternative. If the imagined audience has no prior knowledge of the subject matter, then the student writer feels compelled to explain every little thing to the nth degree…and the work becomes unmanageable. Also, this “tabula rasa” audience is rather amorphous. I prefer a nice, clear audience in my head.

For my part, I suggest that in their writing, my students imagine a strong colleague as their audience. That is, some one (or two, or three) classmates who have kept up on the reading, heard the lectures, participated in the discussions, and have sought to make connections between the different elements of the subject matter. This solves the question of prior knowledge: the writer does not have to explain every little thing, but insofar as her research has led her to information not covered in class, she should bring that data into relation with her classmate’s body of knowledge. The “strong colleague” is (or can be) a positive figure to hold in one’s mind, and emulating that mental audience is an attainable goal: the “strong colleague” is like the writing student herself at her imagined best. In the writing that she is doing at that point in time, the “strong colleague” represents the best of what she is trying to be.

What do you think of the “strong colleague” as an imagined audience for student writing? What sorts of audiences have you imagined for yourself when you write, and with what results?


9 Responses

  1. This is a really interesting question. I like the strong colleague/classmate idea. I normally imagine a strong colleague (in my case, my wife) as the audience for my papers. Also, several other fellow students sometimes fill the role. I think another advantage to this kind of mental exercise is that by targeting the paper to that audience you also afford yourself the opportunity to see how well you did by asking a colleague to read one of the drafts of your paper.

    All in all I think it’s a win-win scenario.

  2. Yes–that’s almost exactly the advice that I give to my students. For literature essays, I suggest they imagine they’re writing to someone who has read the work and understood/enjoyed it . . . but who did so maybe a year or two ago.

    Thus, they can’t/shouldn’t assume they need to give *no* background information (which characters are related to whom; where a given passage falls in the narrative), but they should give *just enough* to make sure their reader is with them. In other words, no pages and pages of plot summary.

  3. Test comment for my class.

  4. The idea of writing something for a “strong colleague” is a good start and ensures the strength of my biblical scholarship. At the same time, I am always looking at how I could use the knowledge in my current ministries. How does this knowledge relate to a present-day Christian’s interpretation of the bible? Is it useful? Does it clarify our understanding of the fulfillment of God’s promises? Even as we dig into the stories behind the stories in the Old Testament, I cannot remove from my mind that the New Testament declares Jesus Christ is risen. My audience should also include the people I will minister to.

  5. This topic is one that I have questioned over the past two weeks; who is my intended audience? What I have surmised is that my intended audience has an interest in the topic, has some prior knowledge of the topic, and feels comfortable responding to my submission. While writing my blog on the word Zion as found in the Psalms, I worried a little that Dr. Lester would respond with many corrections concerning my own interpretations; in the end, I decided that just such corrections are learning tools, and that I will have to “suck up” to the reality that I don’t really know that much about the Old Testament! I look forward to responses to my blog from professor and students, alike!

  6. I understand this idea of being “paralyzed” with fear over what your professor may think in response to your writing. However, if I write something that ends up being “demolished,” I look at this as a learning experience. We are here to learn after all, correct? If I knew all the answers to puzzling questions, or if I had already learned all the material from my classes, then I would not need to be in seminary.

    Seeing that I do not have all the answers or information, I view myself as a student- willing to learn- and understanding that I may find myself in situations where I feel “demolished.” But, I hope to put aside the feelings of fear that “paralyze” me so I may fully embrace the classrooms continuous journey of learning.

  7. This article helped me feel clearer. I was a little confused on how I have to start my writing to upload on the blog. I hope I can be a “strong collegue” with an refined academic attitude. But, most of all, I want to enjoy the world of OT!!

  8. Yes, I agree the writer must focus on the reader when writing the critique of a chapter. There can be some hesitation on explaining too much information to bore the educated person that has read the same material and listened to the pod cast, but it is the uniqueness in each writer to find a voice that the reader would want to listen to and hear more. This information helped because I tend to give more information to the reader than I have to which would then confuse the professor who will be grading the writing.


  9. This is a great notion Brooke. I like how it does explicitly what a seminar-style class does implicitly. It also gets the writer used to the idea of the academy as a collection of colleagues, which is what it should be.

    Even as a relatively senior student I still have trouble doing this. I recently finished an article for submission to an edited volume and when I had an outside scholar read it for some feedback one of the critiques he gave was that my first section sounded like a student trying to prove to the prof that he’s done the assigned reading. It’s hard when you’re writing for the approval of an authority figure to find your own voice, and a lack of voice is an almost universal quality in the writing of young students.

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