Novice students of academic writing often have to cope with learning a new vocabulary and style when approaching the dreaded “essay.” They might be asked to write a summary, or a research paper, or an analysis, or a narrative, or a response, or an exposition of a literary work, or an argument in response to some other argument–the types of papers can be numerous (I use a dash here for a specific reason). In any case, students should always approach an assignment like this as an opportunity to learn something, even if they find it far fetched or purposeless. This is often addressed as an opportunity to improve skills, and that’s fine and dandy (or should be).
For many styles of the essay, what should be given priority is “audience.” The audience is designed, imagined, or proven as that group or individual who will benefit, gain, or learn something from the final product. Audience, as a rule or given, shapes the conclusions and organization of the “paper.” But this concept or given requires explanation and, perhaps, even some skepticism.
The audience shapes the paper. What does this mean? It means that from the beginning to the middle to the end of a work, the writer needs to know who the audience is and what the audience may need or want from each part. In academic writing, the paper is written for the benefit of the audience so that what’s learned can be applied, questioned, or quoted in some other context. Consider a summary of an article in written form and how the audience may shape the final product. Let’s define audience in this example paper. The summary is written to and for an audience who requires the summary, who “has not” read the article, and who needs to know what the author of the article is doing, because they “want to know” or “need to know.” Every element of the summary is written to fulfill the needs of this audience, from the beginning, to the middle, to the end.
This audience needs to know who wrote the article, the author’s credentials (what’s their relationship to the subject), where it was published and when, the subject of the article, what kind of article it is (argument, informative), the author’s conclusions, and how the author came to their conclusions. That’s sounds like a lot, but these requirements can be handled in just a few sentences. The audience may need to know from the start of the essay what the subject of the summary is, so we could start like so, after a nice juicy title:
Gun control is an important issue in American culture.
In the United States, healthcare persists as a significant topic of concern.
Today the relationship between religion and civic life inspires legal debate.
If you do this, you can go right into introducing the subject of the summary, which is the “thorough” article about which you are writing the summary for the audience. Like so:
Dr. So n So, a political science professor at Tunxis Community College, argues in her recent New York Times op ed entitled Why America is a Federal Republic that the United States should not be confused with classical democracies. She uses experts in the political science field and comparative analysis to make her case.
Da da da . . .
And so the audience is aware from this everything required to set the stage for details to come, details that should prove that her article is indeed as described above.
Summary writing may be okay if the student is after practicing the ability to identify and describe an article to an audience who needs to know. But sometimes the audience needs to know something beefier: Whether the author is making an effective case or whether an author is making a more effective case than someone else. In one sense, a straight rhetorical summary is good for learning how to identify and describe what authors are doing or in getting a handle on the debate on an issue in their variety of Points of View. The student may have a list of ten authors who have written on a subject like gun control or free speech or the effectiveness of a particular drug. And a student may have written ten summaries to learn as much about the debate as is reasonably possible.
Identification and description are good skills to develop, but so is the ability to evaluate the Points of View of authors after reading and studying them. These abilities–identification, description, and evaluation, which amount to prerequisites for discernment (the ability to judge well, according to some definitions)–are all aspects of the development of solid academic writing. A student must be able to identify/distinguish examples from data and weigh that evidence in the context in which it comes in support of an argument or as a detail in explanation of concepts or ideas. The idea of weight is also part of the language of academic and professional writing, in terms of burdens of proof. In other words, what evidence has more significance in the need to evaluate some claims over others? This is a skill that never goes away and never looses significance in academic or professional writing.
But this question of discernment needs more thinking. It requires a different essay on my part.
Let me end this essay by claiming this: another aspect of audience and its definition has to do with the degree to which an audience will accept a task as completed, appropriate, or reasonable in terms of proof, explanation, clarification, or thoroughness, and the kinds of evidence and appeals required.