"Audience," we writing teachers tell our students, "is one of the most important considerations for a writer doing business or technical writing"...or any kind of prose writing, for that matter.  We greatly emphasize this essential building block of writing, telling our students

  • Knowing or anticipating who will be reading what you have written is key to effective writing.
  • Knowing your audience—their general age, gender, education level, religion, language, culture, and group membership—is the single most important aspect of developing your essay.
  • When writing for business, we need an audience-centric approach and must create our message in a language appropriate to audience needs.

I realize this advice sounds perfectly familiar to any writing teacher and to anyone who ever sat through a writing class in college. But this is the biggest mistake we writing teachers make....

Why? Because most all of the writing done in writing classes has no audience, no flesh-and-blood reader, no real person who must use the writing as instrumental knowledge to carry out an activity or make an important decision. The audience in writing classes is almost always make believe, some dreamed-up entity who might, given certain circumstances, be interested in the topic the writer is discussing. In college, WRITING is mainly about the writer.

To be absolutely realistic, the only REAL reader in most writing classes, is the teacher who reads to grade the writing, not to use it for practical purposes. For all the lip service we give to the concept of AUDIENCE, it's odd and troubling that we don't have students find a real person who actually needs the information.

When we require our students to write to a real person about a real issue in that reader's life, many aspects of writing become crystal clear. Suddenly we can be precise in helping the writer generate content, shape the organization, design the document, and adjust the tone.

Also, the most important aspect of real-world workplace writing is its USEFULNESS. Without a real reader, there can be no USEFULNESS!

Teaching writing without requiring that the writing be done for a real reader who needs the information is like teaching someone to play golf while never giving them a real golf ball to knock around or a real course to traverse. We have a pejorative name for that kind of teaching: an academic exercise

WHO CAN THAT REAL READER BE?

As the writing teacher, you could find an issue (an area of concern or interest to you) you need information on and ask your students to write specifically to you about this real issue. For instance, I was interested in buying an all-electric car. So I told my students my general driving habits and special concerns about operating an all-electric car, and I asked them to research the all-electric cars that would meet my needs and recommend the best fit for me with clear evidence to support the recommendation.

Grading such writing, REAL WRITING FOR A REAL PERSON ABOUT A REAL ISSUE, becomes less a matter of theory and more a practical matter. I can say for sure whether the writing provides content that is useful to me. By the way, when I've done this assignment, I'm amazed how many students feel the need to tell me the history of all-electric cars going back to Edison's 1904 all-electric car and how he and Henry Ford killed that technology in favor of gas-burning vehicles. They feel compelled to explain to me how an all-electric car works.

I can only imagine that these students are giving me this information, which is practically useless to me, out of habit. Of course a writer must give the history of whatever it is the writer is discussing and explain how it works. And it's no wonder that bosses in "the real world" complain that students can't write when they get out of college. They CAN write, but they have "academic" writing habits that get in the way of communicating to a real person--who is busy and intolerant of useless information--who needs information about a real issue.

You could also have students interview each other to discover information needs and have each student write to another student about that real issue. If you do this, the student who needs the information must be part of the grading process. Only that reader can say for sure how the content met or failed to meet her/his needs given the issue.

You could also get students involved in service learning and have them write for a real person in an organization who needs information on a given issue. If you do this, you need to have that reader take part in assessing the writing.

HOW DOES HAVING A REAL READER CHANGE HOW WE TEACH WRITING?

When we have a real reader who really needs information about a real issue, the nature of writing changes. As I like to explain it...when you view writing absolutely from the reader's point of view, writing is 90% about the content and only 10% about the presentation. My analogy is a cargo ship--it's 90% about the cargo and only 10% about the ship. Of course, if the ship sinks...all is lost. So that 10% is pivotal.

But, you must admit, when you read your daily email or find a report that you might wish to peruse, you pay attention mainly to the content. You decide to keep reading or not depending on that content. Yes, the information must be conveyed through words on the page, but you don't start out admiring the style or even pay that much attention to it unless it gets in the way of your discovering the content that interests you.

Students need to understand that CONTENT is at the heart of writing. They can't know this when they don't practice writing to real readers about real issues for those readers. 

Another way having a real reader to write to changes how we teach writing is how we must look at CONTENT. Most people define content as "the information," "the facts," the writer wants to convey. But this is only part of the story.

CONTENT has four moving parts. It originates in the ISSUE (the are of shared concern between writer and reader). The ISSUE is why the writer is writing and why the reader will choose to read. Next the writer must be able to "factor" that ISSUE into all the questions the reader needs to have the writer address about that ISSUE. I call this "QUESTION FACTORING." The third skill involves answering those questions through the writer's expertise, experience, or research. And, finally, those answers must be supported with bona fide evidence, examples, and explanations. This support turns out to be answers to smaller questions that the bigger questions put into play. (This view of writing dates back at least to Hermagoras and Aristotle--350 BC--and the theory of STASIS, which, at its core, is about questions asked and answered.)

We can also give students very specific skills for organizing that useful information, for designing a successful reading experience for that reader, and for crafting sections, paragraphs, and sentences. We can also talk very specifically about word choice and even mechanics.

This is what I call THE HOCs and LOCs approach. Any document is a synergy among seven systems working together to deliver useful information to the real reader: The HOCs (high order concerns) are 

  • CONTENT
  • ORGANIZATION
  • DOCUMENT DESIGN

The LOCs (low order concerns) are

  • paragraphs
  • sentences (syntax)
  • word choices (diction)
  • mechanics.

In my writing classes, I teach students about each of these seven systems, giving the very specific techniques for ensuring success at every level. SUCCESS is defined as a satisfied reader.

TRY ASSIGNING YOUR STUDENTS TO WRITE TO A REAL READER ABOUT A REAL ISSUE

So give this a try. Have your students write to YOU about a real issue for you. You'll see how much different you feel when you "grade" the writing. I'm not sure why any writing assignment in college would ever be done for an "audience" that isn't 100% REAL?

Let me know how it turns out....

P.S. My textbook, Mastering Workplace Writing (available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Mastering-Workplace-Writing-Harvey-Lillywhite/dp/0692520082) and my 200-page e-book, Mindful Writing at Work (available here: http://qcgwrite.com/mindful-writing-at-work) both detail the HOCs and LOCs approach.

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