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Target Versus Actual Audience

Updated: Apr 16, 2023
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In my last post on writing, I discussed the idea that there is no such thing as writing in general. Writing is always "in particular" because it exists within a specific rhetorical situation. Today we're going to look more closely at one of the elements of a specific situation: target versus actual audience.


Target audience is a simple enough concept. It's who you're writing to, right?

Well, yes, but . . .

Say you're writing a letter to your grandmother. Your target audience is . . . ? Ding ding ding! That's right. Your grandmother.


But what if you're writing a comparative rhetorical analysis for your English 101 class with me, Miss Jess? Who is your audience, then?

Err . . . You? Miss Jess?

Bzzt. Try again!

Sure, I'm the one grading your paper, but I am not your target audience. Rather, your target audience is anyone interested in your topic who wants to read your essay. This person may or may not be as familiar with your topic and the articles you're analyzing as you are, and they are definitely less familiar with them than me. This is why providing context for your argument is key. Without enough background information on, say, the origins of an issue, the articles you're analyzing, or the way you're defining a key word, your reader will be lost from paragraph one.

What's more, your text's actual audience will inevitably end up being larger than your target audience.

Take this blog post, for example. My target audience is you, my faithful subscribers who, whether because you enjoy writing or just wanted to support me out of the kindness of your heart, clicked the "Subscribe" button. (And then you waited for weeks for me to reach out with a newsletter—oops!) You forgave me for my folly (after a few laughs) and are now familiar enough with this series that you don't need the explanation paragraph at the beginning of this post. Let's get to the meat already!

But my target audience is also you, the busy parent who stumbled upon my blog while searching for a writing tutor for your son. You aren't particularly interested in writing (and even if you were, your son wouldn't listen to you, anyway), but you figured you might as well look around to see if this Jessica Cyphers is worth your and your son's time while your here. So far I seem down-to-earth, and, though I'm no Shakespeare, my writing isn't terrible. (You've read this far, after all.) But ack! Time's a-wasting. You shoot me a message through my contact form and are off to soccer practice and then clarinet lessons before dinner. Taco Bell?

So you see, a text's audience will invariably be bigger than your target audience, and it's important that you cater to both. No, you don't have to explain everything in great detail, but you can't expect your reader to fill in gaping holes in your writing. What's more, you can't assume that your reader has had your same experiences with a topic. Like when I tell my students it's okay to use "I" in their writing. Most of them look at me like a deer looks at headlights. Whaaat? My teachers never let me use "I" before. I'm not your other teachers, I tell them. And then I explain why. Or, in another example, I once wrote a blog post in which I said I loved everyone. The backlash was incredible. You love murderers? You love rapists? I realized then that I hadn't fully thought my argument through and presented it in a way that made sense.

Writing for an audience is a practice of self-examination as much as anything.

Long story short: If you're not sure if you've explained yourself well enough, I recommend asking a friend or family member to read through your text before presenting it to the world. If they have questions, address them before hitting "publish." In an ideal world, we would all follow Stephen King's advice and lock our work away for six weeks before editing it and sharing it. Alas, I'm still trying to get into the practice of his other tip: Write every day!


In my next post, I'll dive a little deeper into the dynamics of a target audience (not the actual audience), and one of these days I'll get to one of my favorite concepts in writing, the idea of "doubling up." If you have any feedback or suggestions before then, please, chime in!

Comparative Rhetorical Analysis
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