During my conferences at the Writing Center I often ask writers to consider how deeply they need to explain a term or topic in terms of the audience they are writing to. “Who is your audience?” I’ll ask them, “Who are you writing to here?” They inevitably respond, “My professor?”
And that’s correct; every student is writing to/for a professor. As students, we know that our job is to demonstrate our grasp of the material through writing, and that the professor is the ultimate judge of whether we have achieved this task. But there’s an inherent flaw in that process: we already know that the professor knows more than us about the subject of our query, so we don’t necessarily have to go into great detail about the particulars. For instance, if I’m writing to my psychology professor about how Humanism developed from Existentialism, I don’t have to explain what “phenomenology” is; I can just talk about why it’s important to the Humanistic perspective. My professor is a well-informed audience, and writing to a well-informed audience allows me to move beyond ruminating over simple details to expounding on more complex concepts.
Sounds great, right? Until I remember that the whole point of academic writing is to demonstrate my knowledge of a topic. It matters not if my professor understands phenomenology, but that I understand it well enough to explain the topic myself, and that my writing is up to academic standards. In other words, the devil is in the details.
So who, then, can I write to instead? The first step, of course, is to ask my instructor if I should be writing to a particular audience as part of the assignment. If not, then my challenge is to locate some target audience, besides my professor, to whom might I address an in-depth explanation of a complex topic using formal academic language. Who else might need to know about phenomenology’s role in Humanism? It is here that I would like to introduce to you, Exhibit A: The Fellow Student.
My classmates are the perfect target for delivery of highly specialized academic knowledge. They have spent the quarter studying the subject along with me, but have not yet encountered my particular thesis. When writing to this audience I am free to speak in the language of the topic at hand, but still bear the burden of explanation of significant details. And this burden is a boon to any academic writer; since a student’s academic success hinges on the thorough and engaging explanation of a topic, a writer who imagines herself responsible for this success will be automatically guided towards providing an appropriately detailed and relevant explanation to her imagined audience. The result is a paper which accurately and appropriately demonstrates the writer’s knowledge to the actual audience: the professor.
I’m not sure when I started writing to my fellow students. I just happened to catch myself delivering a lecture to an imaginary classroom in my mind’s eye while writing a research paper last quarter, and realized that I’d apparently chosen a fictional college class as my paper’s audience. Since then I’ve been doing so intentionally, and with great success. Even now, I imagine that I’m writing to an audience of fellow students who turn to the local writing center blog for insight and entertainment, and who are going to try my “classmates-as-audience” technique on their next assignment. You are, aren’t you?