by Ken Lindblom
We all have different relationships with other people. Some people love us, some people don’t, and others don’t have enough information to form an opinion yet. When we write, we also have relationships with the people who read our writing. And our writer-reader relationships are as varied as our flesh-and-blood ones.
One of the major differences between writer-reader relationships in traditional school writing and in authentic writing is the power dynamic between the writer and the intended audience in the rhetorical situation. In school, students generally write from a position of weakness to an audience (the teacher) who knows more about the subject than they do and whose opinions, preferences, and judgments are almost supremely powerful. Teachers usually assign, coach, and judge school writing. Even when they’re not writing to a teacher, students often write to some faceless exam scorer, whose judgment in one sitting can have a dramatic effect on their future.
Thus, students become very used to writing for an audience that has a uniquely high degree of power.
In the world outside school (workplace writing) and in authentic assignments (assignments with real audiences and real purposes), the power dynamic between a writer and his or her reader is far more complex and interesting. Such writing situations can take one of three forms:
- Writing Up: when a writer is writing to an audience with more power than s/he has
- Writing Down: when a writer is writing to an audience with less power than s/he has
- Writing Across: when a writer is writing to an audience with about the same power as s/he has
Writing in each of these situations requires writers to make careful decisions, taking into account the power-level of their audience. These are high-level rhetorical skills that students will never develop unless they are given authentic writing assignments,. (Here are some examples of authentic writing assignments.)
Writing up is what students are most used to. Once one establishes any real authority as a thinker, professional, or experienced member of a community, one rarely writes from a position of complete weakness to an all-powerful audience. But there are many cases when a writer is trying to get something from or to inform a more powerful source. Writing a state senator to ask for help; requesting additional funds from a superior; asking for an exception to a rule; protesting a speeding ticket: That’s Writing Up.
Important features of writing to take in account when Writing Up, include:
- Understanding the amount of time your audience is likely to give your writing and ensuring the length of your writing conforms. Will your audience be invested enough in you and your subject to devote the time needed to closely read your writing, or do you need to get your point across quickly? Will they even read it at all?
- Knowing what forms of evidence your audience is likely to find compelling. Will anecdotes or short stories work? Are statistics the only thing this audience cares about? Are there people this audience respects whose words you can use to get them to pay more attention to what you have to say? Someone who has more power than them?
- Being aware of your audience’s preferences and biases. The better you know your audience, the better able you will be to avoid issues of substance and surface that will impede your message. Would using a term such as s/he cause this audience who prefers he or she to think less of you? Are you writing to a pedant for whom ending a sentence with a preposition is an unforgivable error? (Even though it’s not.) What are your reader’s assumptions about how long the piece should be? Does the audience have any biases or predispositions related to the topic? When one is Writing Up, all these points can matter a lot. Is the message you have to deliver something the reader is likely to appreciate, or is it something you need to find a hook that will ensure s/he’ll read it? Must you lead up to a request softly, building a clear case, or is a direct “ask” more likely to work?
- Using the appropriate register (or tone) in your writing; for example, should a letter begin “Dear Ms. Walter:” or, “Dear Charlotte”? Should you write “It has come to our attention” or, “I’ve noticed”? In many cases, a more formal register is appropriate when Writing Up. A more deferential approach with more hedges may be more effective when writing up than something that is bold and blunt. But this depends on the character of the specific audience to whom one is writing.
Although I call it Writing Down, one of the worst mistakes a writer can make is writing in a way that is condescending. Instead, I urge a writer to consider the stakes involved when writing to an audience with less authority and to attend to them intelligently. When teachers write to students; when managers write to employees; when those who consider themselves experts in any capacity writing to non-specialists: they are Writing Down.
When Writing Down, here are some of the important elements to keep in mind:
- How much does the audience like and respect you? Is your audience going to be searching for mistakes to undermine and embarrass you, to confirm their beliefs about your incompetence, or are they likely to read right over what they consider mistakes? This is important because if they are not likely to want to undermine you, you can afford to be less concerned about that audience’s personal opinions on surface matters. (In fact, a minor error here or there might even make you more endearing to them, not that it’s recommended.)
- Are you delivering good news or bad news? You should ensure the tone of your writing matches the content. Bad news usually requires being delicate, conciliatory, and understanding; it’s very tricky to use humor well in such situations, but sometimes it helps. Good news is easier to deliver, and a positive, celebratory tone is fun to write and to read. The forms of evidence also matter depending on good or bad content: Should one tell a personal story or give a personal perspective; or is a distanced, more formal approach better for the sake of your audience?
- How much more do you know than your audience? If you are writing on a subject in which you have more knowledge, you may need to be careful about how you use jargon that seems obvious in meaning to you. Consider running a draft past a trusted member of your audience so you get better at predicting what does and doesn’t make sense for them. It’s unlikely that those with less power than you will admit not knowing something you seem to expect them to know.
- Be careful to take honorifics, salutations, and other matters seriously. When writing to those with less power, your audience cannot ignore you, and they are likely to read your words, your tone, and your evidence very closely (unlike when one is Writing Up). Consider the differences in an opening to an email from your boss: Dear Employees, To Those It May Concern, Dear Colleagues, Dear Co-Workers. Those to whom you are Writing Down will consider those differences, and probably discuss them at the water cooler.
- Be especially attentive to ethics when writing to those over whom you have power. Be thoughtful, empowering, and grateful. Any author is more likely to succeed when writing down if s/he treats readers with care and respect.
Writing to peers can be a very challenging rhetorical situation. Ask any academic about writing for “peer-reviewed” journals. Peers can be faceless judges who know just the same that we know, or they can be supportive co-equals invested in mutual success. In fact, one reviewer of this essay suggested that such mutual investment from peers often arises in workplace communities that write for and with each other–a great point!
When writing to an audience with the same amount of power as you–that is when Writing Across–here are some things to think about:
- You must convince this audience to care about what you write. They don’t have to read it. Take care to make the writing interesting directly to them and as soon in the writing as possible. Be sure to answer the “So what? Question.” Here’s more help with that.
- Peers can be sensitive to anything a writer says that might put them one-up on others. Avoid writing anything that makes it seem like you think you are better than others, even if you are delivering new information.
- Trying to create a sense of togetherness with your reader is helpful in these situations. When writing across, keep in mind information that you share and assumptions that you agree upon, which you can use as common ground from which to launch into new territory.
- When writing across, it’s helpful to use jargon that most of the readers will understand and that not everyone else would. Using shared vocabulary is a way of bonding with readers in an equal relationship, and showing them that you are part of the same group–what one reviewer of this blog point reminded me that Swales has famously called a discourse community.
- Try writing in a less formal register. Some informal expressions, even emojis in the right places can create goodwill.
Good Writers Write with Nuance
Students will learn best if they practice Writing Up, Writing Down, and Writing Across.
Writing in a variety of rhetorical situations–that is, writing for lots of real purposes, to real audiences, in real contexts–will give students the kind of experience that will help them write in many situations they will encounter in their lives outside school. If students focus most heavily on traditional school writing, they are likely to think that what’s the best writing for school is the best writing for everywhere–and that’s just wrong!
Making the best rhetorical choices as a writer is complicated. The more experience students have with varied purposes and audience, the better they’ll be able to handle tricky situations when they arise. Effective writers are versatile and flexible; they understand shades of meaning and how those shades affect audiences. They write with nuance. They pay close attention to who their audiences are, and they make themselves aware of the power dynamics they are writing within.
Ken Lindblom is Associate Professor of English and Associate Dean in the School of Professional Development at Stony Brook University. From 2008-2013, he was editor of NCTE’s English Journal, and he is co-author with Leila Christenbury of Making the Journey: Being and Becoming a Teacher of English Language Arts, Fourth Edition (Heinemann 2016), and co-author with Patricia A. Dunn of Grammar Rants (Heinemann 2011). He’s active on Twitter @Klind2013, and blogs here.
For more resources on thinking about the rhetorical situation (and not simply formulaic writing) see our talking points.
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.