When writing or speaking to someone in real life outside of the classroom, most people naturally tailor their comments to suit the needs of a particular audience. You don’t write to your boss or your mother the way you write to your sister or best friend; you speak much more casually when you are hanging out with people at the mall versus speaking to people during a job interview. But some students still find the concept of writing an academic paper with a specific audience in mind very confusing. After all, aren’t you writing to your professor, since he is the person grading the paper?
While this might be true, many professors are more specific about how the paper should be framed. Some professors indicate that you should write to a layperson’s audience, explaining any key terms that are not a part of common knowledge. Also, even if your professor is very familiar with the sources you are using because they were covered in class, this does not necessarily mean that he wants you to make the assumption that the reader is equally familiar with those sources as well. On the other hand, some professors will explicitly state NOT to summarize the story or article the paper is about, and assume the reader is familiar with its content.
Analyzing the audience of an academic paper is a necessary part of the writing process and an important part of becoming a better writer. It is not enough to ask what the paper is about; you must also ask to whom it is directed. This will have a major impact on how the information is presented; the vocabulary used in the paper; and the extent to which the paper dwells on exposition versus analysis. Make sure to clarify with your professor who the audience is of the paper you are writing before you begin!