Imagine a friend sends you an email (or a text, or posts to your Facebook page) and starts off by saying, “Hi, my name is John. I was born in New York City, and now live in Chicago on Elm Street. I’m a senior at…”

You’d wonder why they were giving you all this information – information you already know.

This is often how teachers feel when reading student essays.

There are at least two variations here:

  1. You are supposed to inform, because you’re writing a research paper, so a certain amount of back-story is okay.
  2. You are writing about content that you studied in class, and everyone (fellow students, the teacher) has a basic level of knowledge.

In the second case, repeating the basics (the basic plot line of a play or novel, basic character traits) is deadly because it comes across as space filler. Which it often is. The teacher can almost see the student writer calculating how many more paragraphs of padding must be added to reach the goal of 750 words.

In the first case, summary is okay – to a point. It’s as if your friend had texted you to tell you about their cousin, who lives in LA and is going to Duke University in the fall, and races mountain bukes. Some reminding is appropriate, so you don’t confuse the her (the mountain biking cousin) with the other cousin from LA who likes to play Grand Theft Auto in 10 hour stretches.

In both cases, your reader (whether the teacher, a fellow student, a tutor etc) wants you to go beyond basic knowledge, and to do it in an appropriate way.

Knowing your audience is about understanding their knowledge, but also their attitudes and opinions. It’s about understanding their level of reading comprehension, and the academic setting (i.e. how formal to be in your diction, how complex to make some sentences, how long to make paragraphs etc.). You even need to think about their level of interest.

For instance, you might have a research paper due in an English class, and you come up with the clever idea of analyzing Milton’s Paradise Lost and it’s impact on heavy metal of the 1980s.

On the plus side, you’re probably in pretty original territory. Guaranteed no one in your class has read anything like it, and probably neither has your teacher.

On the negative side, you might have to keep an audience more interested in hip-hop and/or classical music engaged for 10 pages as you detail your love for all things Ozzy and Ronny James Dio.

You might start by acknowledging that not everyone enjoys this music (building some common ground), and then continue to focus not on the music/lyrics, but the contemporary cultural debate over Black Sabbath and the publication of Paradise Lost. Once you understand some details concerning the two different times, and reception of the respective ‘art’, you can better predict (and then attack) the kinds of counterarguments your audience will use to discredit you.

If you succeed, you will have written about a subject you care about (Heavy Metal), and educated your teacher (unless they love Ozzy already…in which case you have a different challenge).

While academic writing is often framed as being for the “academic audience,” in reality you have one reader: the teacher. So while you want to write as if addressing multitudes, know that you should be targeting that one person who is going to read your essay with intensity…and assign a grade.