1 Audience, Purpose, & Context

Questions to Ponder

Discuss these following scenario with your partners:

Imagine you are a computer scientist, and you have written an important paper about cybersecurity. You have been invited to speak at a conference to explain your ideas. As you prepare your slides and notes for your speech, you are thinking about these questions:

  • What kind of language should I use?
  • What information should I include on my slides?

Now, imagine you are the same computer scientist, and you have a nephew in 3rd grade. Your nephew’s teacher has invited you to come to his class for Parents’ Day, to explain what you do at work. Will you give the same speech to the class of eight-year-olds? How will your language and information be the same or different?

Thinking about audience, purpose, and context

Before we give the presentations in the scenarios described above, we need to consider our audience, purpose, and context. We need to adjust the formality and complexity of our language, depending on what our audience already knows. In the context of a professional conference, we can assume that our audience knows the technical language of our subject. In a third grade classroom, on the other hand, we would use less complex language. For the professional conference, we could include complicated information on our slides, but that probably wouldn’t be effective for children. Our purpose will also affect how we make our presentation; we want to inform our listeners about cybersecurity, but we may need to entertain an audience of third graders a bit more than our professional colleagues.

The same thing is true with writing. For example, when we are writing for an academic audience of classmates and instructors, we use more formal, complex language than when we are writing for an audience of children. In all cases, we need to consider what our audience already knows, what they might think about our topic, and how they will respond to our ideas.

In writing, we also need to think about appearance, just as we do when giving a presentation. The way our essay looks is an important part of establishing our credibility as authors, in the same way that our appearance matters in a professional setting. Careful use of MLA format and careful proofreading help our essays to appear professional; consult MLA Formatting Guides for advice.


the rhetorical triangle: author, purpose, context
The rhetorical triangle

Before you start to write, you need to know:

Who is the intended audience? (Who are you writing this for?)

What is the purpose? (Why are you writing this?)

What is the context? (What is the situation, when is the time period, and where are your readers?)

We will examine each of these below.

AUDIENCE ~ Who are you writing for?

Your audience are the people who will read your writing, or listen to your presentation. In the examples above, the first audience were your professional colleagues; the second audience were your daughter and her classmates. Naturally, your presentation will not be the same to these two audiences.

Here are some questions you might think about as you’re deciding what to write about and how to shape your message:

      • What do I know about my audience? (What are their ages, interests, and biases? Do they have an opinion already? Are they interested in the topic? Why or why not?)
      • What do they know about my topic? (And, what does this audience not know about the topic? What do they need to know?)
      • What details might affect the way this audience thinks about my topic? (How will facts, statistics, personal stories, examples, definitions, or other types of evidence affect this audience?)

In academic writing, your readers will usually be your classmates and instructors. Sometimes, your instructor may ask you to write for a specific audience. This should be clear from the assignment prompt; if you are not sure, ask your instructor who the intended audience is.

PURPOSE – Why are you writing?

Your primary purpose for academic writing may be to inform, to persuade, or to entertain your audience. In the examples above, your primary purpose was to inform your listeners about cybersecurity.

Audience and purpose work together, as in these examples:

  • I need to write a letter to my landlord explaining why my rent is late so she won’t be upset. (Audience = landlord; Purpose = explaining my situation and keeping my landlord happy)
  • I want to write a proposal for my work team to persuade them to change our schedule. (Audience = work team; Purpose = persuading them to get the schedule changed)
  • I have to write a research paper for my environmental science instructor comparing solar to wind power. (Audience = instructor; Purpose = informing by analyzing and showing that you understand these two power sources)

Here are some of the main kinds of informative and persuasive writing you will do in college:

describes argues
explains defends
tells a story convinces
summarizes justifies
analyzes advocates
compares/contrasts supports

How Do I Know What My Purpose Is?

Sometimes your instructor will give you a purpose, like in the example above about the environmental science research paper (to inform), but other times, in college and in life, your purpose will depend on what effect you want your writing to have on your audience. What is the goal of your writing? What do you hope for your audience to think, feel, or do after reading it? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Persuade or inspire them to act or to think about an issue from your point of view.
  • Challenge them or make them question their thinking or behavior.
  • Argue for or against something they believe or do; change their minds or behavior.
  • Inform or teach them about a topic they don’t know much about.
  • Connect with them emotionally; help them feel understood.

There are many different types of writing in college: essays, lab reports, case studies, business proposals, and so on. Your audience and purpose may be different for each type of writing, and each discipline, or kind of class. This brings us to context.

CONTEXT ~ What is the situation?

When and where are you and your readers situated? What are your readers’ circumstances? What is happening around them? Answering these questions will help you figure out the context, which helps you decide what kind of writing fits the situation best. The context is the situation, setting, or environment; it is the place and time that you are writing for. In our examples above, the first context is a professional conference; the second context is a third-grade classroom. The kind of presentation you write would be very different for these different contexts.

Here’s another example: Imagine that your car breaks down on the way to class. You need to send a message to someone to help you.

AUDIENCE: your friends

PURPOSE: to ask for help

CONTEXT: you are standing by the side of Little Patuxent Parkway, 10 minutes before class begins. Your friends are already at the campus Starbucks or in Duncan Hall.

Do you and your readers have time for you to write a 1,000-word essay about how a car works, and how yours has broken down? Or would one word (‘help!’) and a photo be a better way to send your message?

Now imagine that you are enrolled in a mechanical engineering class, and your professor has asked for a 4-page explanation of how internal combustion works in your car. What kind of writing should you produce? This would be the appropriate audience, purpose, and context for the 1,000-word essay about how a car works.


Activity ~ A Note about Tone

As you consider your audience, purpose, and context, you will need to think about your word choice as well. For example, say these two phrases out loud:

  • very sick kids
  • seriously ill children

Do they mean the same thing? Would you use the phrases in the same way? How about:

  • lots of stuff
  • many items

The words we choose help determine the tone of our writing, which is connected to audience, purpose, and context. Can you think of other examples using formal and informal tone?


Is this chapter:

…about right, but you would like more detail? –> Watch “Audience: Introduction & Overview” and from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab. Also, view “Purpose, Audience, & Context” from The Ohio State University.

…about right, but you prefer to listen and learn? –> Try “Thinking About Your Assignment” from the Excelsior OWL and “A Smart Move: Responding the Rhetorical Situation.”

…too easy? –> Watch “Writing for Audiences in U.S. Academic Settings” from Purdue OWL.

Or, how about watching a funny video? In this short (3.5 minutes) video from the popular children’s program Sesame Street, Sir Ian McKellen tries to teach Cookie Monster a new word, but at first, Sir Ian doesn’t really understand what his audience knows (or doesn’t know), so Cookie Monster doesn’t understand.

Portions of this chapter were modified from the following Open Educational Resources:

Saylor Academy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License without attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensor.


Audience” and “Purpose” chapters from The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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ENGLISH 087: Academic Advanced Writing Copyright © 2020 by Nancy Hutchison is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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