Who is your reader, and what do they want to see in your writing?
Thinking about this issue will help you to 'pitch' your writing appropriately and avoid assuming too much or too little on the part of your reader. Students are often given advice such as "write as if you're addressing someone who knows nothing about the subject". This is useful in reminding you to explain your reasoning or define your terms, as your reader cannot give you credit if you have not made your thinking explicit. It can also be confusing, however, as clearly you will be writing for a lecturer who knows far more about the subject than you currently do.
An academic text is an act of communication between the (student) author and a very specific sort of reader (the academic supervisor), for a very particular purpose. Your reader will form a good impression of you if you address them appropriately. It might be helpful to bear in mind the following:
- Your reader (in practice, your supervisor or examiner) knows a great deal about the subject, but does not know how much you know and understand. They are reading your essay for the purpose of assessing what you know, and (more importantly) how you use this knowledge to answer the question they have set, in a plausible and persuasive way.
- You cannot be expected to know everything, and you certainly could not include everything you know in an essay. An essay is only a sample of what you know, and showcases how well you can use your knowledge to argue your case. You should avoid viewing your essay as a catalogue of all you know, and more as a sample of what you can do.
- You need to demonstrate that you can use your discrimination to locate and select relevant material to offer a well-informed, focussed answer, which is argued so that your reader can follow and assess your reasoning. You need to demonstrate, for example, that you understand the meaning of critical terminology and that your conclusions rest on sound evidence. Your arguments may be accurate, but unless your reader can see the chain of your reasoning and evidence, you will not be convincing. You must show that you are right for good reasons rather than guesswork.
Below is a sample of academic writing, with sections of the text underlined to show where it demonstrates this quality:
Shakespeare's sonnets demonstrate that he exploited the potential of literary forms as a means of argument. Argument is not a purely cognitive activity in which one's case is always made cogently and explicitly; both in life and literature it is reliant upon suggestion and an appeal to the emotions, as is evident in Sonnet 42. On a superficial level, the argument appears to be that of the poet within himself; he seems to have successfully convinced himself through witty conceit that his ‘grief' is in fact a ‘joy'. However, the true argument is directed at the reader; Shakespeare suggests that the offered consolation is entirely insubstantial. The apparent retreat to internality (‘thee' becomes ‘my friend' in the thirteenth line, indicating that the poem is no longer addressed to the friend) suggests a lack of confidence which prevents the poet from making public the conceit-based argument, while the flat contradiction of the preceding lines in ‘she loves but me alone' means that this effect does not rely on any exophoric reference on the reader's part; the inconsistency is a fundamental aspect of the poem's design. Although the sonnet is an entirely different medium from the play, this poem demonstrates two aspects of Shakespearian argument which, it will here be contended, are evident in the problem plays: firstly, that Shakespeare's argumentative method is to appeal to the emotions rather than to reason, and secondly that he argues through negation (as, for example, he negates the abandoned lover's consolation in Sonnet 42). The term ‘problem plays' will here be taken as referring to The Merchant of Venice, All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. Although other plays, notably Troilus and Cressida, have also been placed in this category by critics, they have much less in common with these three than they do with each other.
- The author does not explain for their reader who Shakespeare is, what he wrote, or what a play or sonnet are. This knowledge is assumed to be shared by the reader, without the possibility of different understandings or doubt that the author knows what is meant by them.
- The author does feel the need to explain to the reader what is meant by 'argument' in this case, and also by 'problem play', to justify his or her particular interpretation of these terms and demonstrate that they have not been misunderstood by the author.