By Travis Willmore
When you’re writing a paper strictly for class credit, the actual audience is the person grading your paper. You probably know that’s not the same thing as writing a paper to the instructor (“Just a friendly note to tell you what I’ve learned about experimental nuclear physics!”). But sometimes profs ask you to have a specific type of reader in mind. The intended audience for academic papers often falls into one of these categories:
Laymen: A layman (or layperson, if you prefer) is the average person on the street who’s never heard of your topic. In this case, you’ll be writing for a popular audience, not an academic one. When writing a paper on experimental nuclear physics, you’ll need to explain what a nucleus is before you go into how you plan to experiment with it. It’s crucial to remember that writing in layman’s terms is not the same thing as dumbing down your paper. It’s just breaking your subject down into its most basic parts.
Peers: Often your classmates, whom you know and love, should be your audience. In this case, you don’t have to define everything so explicitly—you can assume your reader will have some familiarity with the subject. Write to your peers the same way you’d want things explained to you if you missed a lecture or two.
Experts: Now you can assume your readership will understand all the concepts you’re throwing at them, and will be familiar with your technical terminology. This is nothing to be intimidated about. It just means that if you write things at the most advanced level you understand them, you can expect to find a receptive audience.
One final thing. Writing is often easier when you’re not worrying about the specter of an audience. Then you can let your thoughts flow unselfconsciously onto the screen. After you’ve got the meat of the paper taken care of, you can make your intended audience clear through revision and editing.