By Ian Sullivan
As odd as it may seem, many students forget to think about the rhetorical situation of writing. Why do I write that this normal reaction to a writing assignment is odd? In personal conversations, texts, tweets, and Facebook posts, people constantly assess to whom they are talking, typing, tweeting, and posting. It seems a natural part of social interaction: we tailor our conversations to interest other people. In short, we try to know our audience. Yet it is not uncommon for a person to fail at this seemingly easy task (as any constant poster of food pictures to Facebook should know). If it is possible to fail even when being careful or, at the least, conscious of how we are marketing ourselves to an audience, what happens when we don’t even think about an audience at all?
Unfortunately, this problem is common. Because writing assignments are assignments, students often mistake the professor for their audience or begin blindly writing for themselves instead of others. Of course, this error is understandable. Even with peer editing, it is difficult to feel that writing is a community project because it requires significant time alone. But successful writers realize that well-written projects cannot occur without thinking about others. It is the job of writers to motivate their readers so they want to read carefully. But an interesting topic is not always enough; writers must think about their audience.
For example, let us consider a writing assignment where I receive no prompt, but I am assigned the topic of cat viral videos:
I can assume that such a topic would interest a broad audience of all genders, sexual orientations, and ages, though perhaps not people who dislike cats or people who don’t use the Internet. Since cat viral videos are so beloved, I assume that my topic is already of interest to my audience. But what do I write about? What problems could cat viral videos possibly present? More importantly, what problems about cat viral videos would my audience actually care about? These are the type of insights and questions that make writing projects successful (and, for the record, I settle on the dangers of distraction: that cat viral videos steal valuable time is a problem to which my audience can relate).