by Katie Arosteguy
If you’re anything like me, you struggle to get your students (or children) to write. You may also struggle to create meaningful and challenging prompts that they will enjoy writing to.
For several years as a high school English teacher and then as a community college and university writing instructor, I had my students write primarily to one audience–a general, college-educated public (i.e. me, the teacher). You may know these assignments well: choose a symbol from “x” novel and explain what it means; write a narrative about your experience with “y”; argue for or against “z.” You get the picture. While I liked these assignments at first and thought they allowed for student choice and creativity, my students’ disinterest became clear to me over time–the topics became well-worn, the writing was dull, the effort just wasn’t there.
However it wasn’t until I was assigned to teach the general advanced composition course at my university a few years ago that the exact problem became clear to me.
The course is a graduation requirement that most students put off until their last quarter–both because they fear an upper-division intensive writing course and also because they prioritize classes for their major(s). For many students, it’s been years since they’ve received feedback on the content, organization, and style of their writing. Because it is a general composition class–as opposed to one of our more field-specific writing in the professions classes—it draws students from all majors with varying levels of interest in the course. The goal is for students to practice advanced principles of expository writing in preparation for entry into their chosen profession.
I sat down to read my course evaluations one day and the following comments caught my attention: students weren’t finding the assignments “challenging” enough; many noted having a hard time “getting into them.”
I had to do a better job of motivating my students to write. They needed to see a reason for writing.
I now begin each class by talking about how important it is for writers to understand the unique rhetorical situation each writing task presents. I use the Rhetorical Square–a mnemonic device that reminds writers that communicating their message depends on how carefully they consider audience, purpose, and voice.
One’s purpose for writing (to persuade, inform, entertain, sell, etc.) must take into account the audience one is writing to (boss, colleague, little brother, potential client, principal, etc.) and use a voice (professional, humorous, colloquial, informal, etc.) that appeals to that readership.
Once students understand where audience fits into the rhetorical situation, we delve deeper into understanding audience–the key to designing meaningful prompts and producing meaningful writing.
To learn how to analyze audience, I have students read Linda Flower’s excellent, short, and accessible “Writing for an Audience” essay. Renowned for her research on the cognitive and social processes writers go through to negotiate meaning in response to differing social contexts, Flower argues: the writer must “create a momentary common ground between the reader and the writer” (91).
I give students this image:
and I tell them, “This is you, the writer. It’s your job to bridge the divide that exists between your thoughts/perspective/knowledge and your readers’.” They have the hardest task of all: they must adapt their writing to meet the needs of their audience. We go over the following:
- First, the writer needs to assess the audience’s knowledge:
- What does the reader already know about the topic? This will determine how much background information s/he needs to give the reader.
- Second, the writer must gauge the reader’s likely attitude toward his/her topic:
- “The more [the reader’s attitude] differ[s] from your own,” Flower notes, “the more you will have to do to make him or her see what you mean.”
- Lastly, the writer must determine the reader’s needs:
- How will the writer organize his/her writing in a way that allows the reader to make a decision?
Inevitably, at this point in the lesson, I get this question: But how do we adapt our writing? What does that look like?
As a class we brainstorm possible rhetorical adjustments a writer can make to appeal to his/her audience. The list usually looks something like the following:
|Method of organization—description, narration, process, compare/contrast, etc.
Choice of content/topics
Use of rhetorical devices—analogies, imagery, etc.
Types of evidence/ examples
Tone—professional, serious, humorous, etc.
Language—vocabulary, word choice, sentence structure
Form—different layouts, use of subheadings, images, etc.
Then the fun part: I tell them it’s time to experiment with writing to different audiences.
I have students pick a term or concept from their major that they have a solid grasp on. For example, an Exercise Biology major may write about forced inspiratory volume; a Human Development major may write about the effects of standardized testing. To adapt this for K-12 writers, students could think of a hobby they know well (i.e. hair braiding, Pokeman, knitting, etc.)
Their goal is to explain the term/concept to three very different audiences:
1) Experts (for my class, this is other specialists in the field);
2) Novices (for my class, this is members of our composition class); and
3) Their family at Thanksgiving dinner.
I first ask them to brainstorm knowledge, attitude, and needs for the three audiences.
Usually the class agrees on something like this:
Family at Thanksgiving
Then they draft their explanations and some brave students volunteer to read the paragraphs out loud to the class. We listen for how they altered their writing to meet the needs of each audience.
Below is an example from a Chemistry major. She clearly adapts her writing using the strategies we’ve discussed to explain what antifreeze (ethylene glycol) is to her three audiences.
1,2-ethanediol exhibits toxicity in the body upon oral ingestion. Its diol groups are favorable for rapid ionic absorption within the gastrointestinal tract. Upon absorption, cytochrome P450 oxidases convert roughly 80% of 1,2-ethanediol into oxalate and oxalic acid. The symptoms of exposure occur in three characteristic phases. The first phase, the neurological stage, lasts from 30 minutes to 12 hours after ingestion [. . .]
Ethylene glycol is a chemical compound commonly found in antifreeze. It is a clear, sweet liquid, commonly ingested accidentally among children, or purposely among adults, in suicide attempts. The properties of the chemical make it favorable for quick absorption through the stomach [. . .], where it can then undergo a series of chemical reactions. [. . .] These toxic effects occur in a very characteristic order. The first stage resembles alcohol toxicity, and occurs from roughly 30 minutes to 12 hours after ingestion [. . .]
Family at Thanksgiving
Antifreeze is very toxic once it is swallowed. This is actually a common issue since antifreeze is clear, and tastes sweet, so children and animals commonly drink it on accident. It exhibits toxic effects as soon as 30 minutes after it’s swallowed. Some effects include a drunken-like stupor, lung and heart problems, and kidney failure. Overall, those who drink antifreeze usually wind up in a coma, and ultimately die.
For specialists, she uses complex, field-specific vocabulary and a professional tone. I tell my students that a sure sign the author is writing this part effectively is when most of us can barely understand what s/he is saying.
For novices, she adds why it’s important to know about the compound and describes its characteristics in ways a general audience would understand. And she uses terms her peers would be familiar with like “alcohol toxicity” to explain the consequences of ingestion.
For her Thanksgiving audience, she uses a conversational voice to give everyday reasons for why we should know about antifreeze (“animals commonly drink it on accident”) and effects if swallowed (“a drunken-like stupor”).
Students love this exercise. It is clear, once we finish debriefing, that they have a much better understanding of what it means to “writ[e] to your audience.”
I continue the focus on audience throughout my courses by asking students to write rationales that justify the rhetorical choices they made in order to appeal to their audience. These accompany all of their writing assignments.
Developing this keen sense of rhetorical awareness should be a key goal for all teachers of writing and for all writers–whether they be students or teachers themselves.
Katie Arosteguy is a former secondary English teacher who also taught a variety of composition classes at community colleges in the Sacramento area. Currently she teaches advanced composition classes in the University Writing Program at UC Davis. She is also a National Writing Project teaching consultant.
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.