passing notes

Audience and PUrpose

Note-passing* has always been a favorite pastime among school kids. They love to share secrets and reveal romantic interests in notes designed, of course, to be private — just between friends. The problem is, teachers have always hated note-passing. It’s evidence, after all, that students are not paying attention. And many teachers’ favorite tactic for discouraging this practice is to read aloud any notes they are able to intercept.

It’s doubtful whether this strategy actually reduces the number of notes passed, but it definitely succeeds in mortifying the author of the note. Sarah might have wanted Jennifer to know how cute she thinks Tommy is, but not the teacher, not the class in general, and certainly not Tommy!

Sarah’s humiliation illustrates this lesson’s key concepts: audience and purpose. Had she known the teacher would be reading the note to the class, the content and style of the note would most likely have been distinctly different. Sarah was writing to Jennifer only, not the class nor the teacher. She had a particular audience and purpose in mind when she expressed her opinion of Tommy.

Audience and purpose matter in every kind of writing, from secret notes to doctoral dissertations.

Considering your audience means asking, “Who will read this?” It matters whether we are writing a letter to our best friend, our grandmother, or the President of the United States. It will affect not only what we say, but also how we say it. 

One problem with writing in school or programs like WriteAtHome is that your only real audience is your teacher or writing coach. She might be the only one who ever reads the paper besides you (and maybe your parents). That’s why we will occasionally give you assignments in which you are to imagine that your audience is someone other than your coach. Writing for different audiences requires flexibility, so we may ask you to write a letter of complaint to a fictional company or a story for a third grader. Good writers know how to adapt their tone, vocabulary, style, and content to the particular audience they are addressing, and this kind of practice will help you develop that skill.

When you think about the purpose of a writing project, you may ask, “Why am I writing this?” The answer obviously affects what you say and how you say it. Are you writing a story merely to entertain or to illustrate a unique perspective on life? Are you writing a letter to request information or to express thanks? All the assignments in WriteAtHome classes are for specific purposes. These are generally under the four major headings of: narration, description, exposition, and persuasion. Within these broad categories are more specific purposes, of course, but they cover pretty much every kind of writing under the sun. 

No matter what kind of writing you are doing, two questions to keep in mind are Who is my audience? and Why am I writing? Staying conscious of these questions will help you write more effectively.

*Before texting, students passed notes. Texting is just digital note-passing.