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The Essentials of Writing

The Hamilton College Style Sheet

Audience

For whom am I writing?

To write anything intelligently, we need to know for whom we are writing. The more precisely we can define the audience, the more effectively we can determine the kind of style to use and what information to include. You may find yourself asking,

  • should I summarize the plot of a work of literature?
  • Do I need to identify historical figures?
  • Should I define technical terms?
  • Should I state variable values that are known within my class but not outside it?

The answers to these questions depend on the nature of your audience. Begin by asking yourself, "for whom am I writing?"

Yes, but only my professor is going to read it.

When you write a paper, you may be confused by the distinction between the real and the imagined audience. That is, in most courses the only real reader of your paper is likely to be your instructor. However, the paper is not a personal letter or memorandum to that instructor, and it must not be written as such. Rather, most papers should written as if they had a wider audience.

Most instructors prefer that you write a paper as if it were to be read by an intelligent member of your class -- that is, someone who has done the assigned reading in the course and who understands what is common knowledge within it. For such a reader, for example, you would not need to write, "Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) was Emperor of France from 1804 to 1814," or "Blank verse is poetry written in unrhymed iambic pentameter"; you would only need to indicate that you intend to discuss Napoleon or that the poem in question is written in blank verse.

But my professor said...

On the other hand, some instructors prefer that you write as if your paper were to be read by a wider audience - for example, as if it were to be published in a learned journal.  For such an audience you might need to make explicit what everyone in your class knows; for example, you might need to say, "In this experiment, a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percent (or ±1.5%) was considered acceptable."

Some science instructors may ask that you write for a reader who knows the basic concepts of introductory courses in science but does not know the specific procedures followed in your laboratory- for example, a student at another college or university.  Your account of procedures must be sufficiently detailed to allow such a reader to reconstruct your experiment and to achieve similar results.

  • I'm still not sure. If you are in doubt about the nature of the audience that you are to assume in writing a paper, discuss the question with your instructor.
Audience aside?

No paper written as part of an expository college writing assignment should use profanity, slang, contractions, colloquial language, or idiosyncratic language. (Of course, dialogue in fiction can sometimes be an exception to this rule.) However, to some extent, the nature of the audience determines the level of formality in your style. Timeless and foolproof advice: although you must maintain the conventions of formal discourse, you should try to make your style as personal as the impersonality of those conventions will permit and as simple as the complexity of your ideas will allow.