Rhetorical Context and Audience

Learning Objectives

  • Recognize rhetorical context in relation to content

In order for your writing to be maximally effective, you have to think about the audience you’re writing for and adapt your writing approach to their needs, expectations, backgrounds, and interests. Being aware of your audience helps you make better decisions about what to say and how to say it. For example, you have a better idea if you will need to define or explain any terms, and you can make a more conscious effort not to say or do anything that would offend your audience.

Sometimes you know who will read your writing — for example, if you are writing an email to your boss. Other times you will have to guess who is likely to read your writing — for example, if you are writing a newspaper editorial. You will often write with a primary audience in mind, but there may be secondary and tertiary audiences to consider as well.

What to think about

When analyzing your audience, consider these points. Doing this should make it easier to create a profile of your audience, which can help guide your writing choices.

Background Knowledge

In general, you don’t want to merely repeat what your audience already knows about the topic you’re writing on; you want to build on it. On the other hand, you don’t want to talk over their heads. Anticipate their amount of previous knowledge or experience based on elements like their age, profession, or level of education.

Expectations and Interests

Your audience may expect to find specific points or writing approaches, especially if you are writing for a teacher or a boss. Consider not only what they do want to read about, but also what they do not want to read about.

Attitudes and Biases

Your audience may have predetermined feelings about you or your topic, which can affect how hard you have to work to win them over or appeal to them. The audience’s attitudes and biases also affect their expectations — for example, if they expect to disagree with you, they will likely look for evidence that you have considered their side as well as your own.


Consider what else you know about your audience, such as their age, gender, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, political preferences, religious affiliations, job or professional background, and area of residence. Think about how these demographics may affect how much background your audience has about your topic, what types of expectations or interests they have, and what attitudes or biases they may have.


Scenario: You are writing an email to your Theatre professor from last semester to propose an independent study course on stage combat with her next year.

Audience: Dr. Wilcox has a Ph.D., and her dissertation focused on American Theatre in particular. She specializes in teaching stage combat strategies–any fights or physical interaction on stage are what she is especially interested in. She often travels to teach small workshops about stage combat.

Background Knowledge Dr. Wilcox is the preeminent expert on stage combat at your university. You have to assume that she knows basically everything there is to know about it and has years of experience to back up her knowledge. Your email should demonstrate your sincere interest in this subject and explain what the independent study would mean for you. Show that you’ve done your homework and don’t waste her time.
Expectations and Interests Why should Dr. Wilcox agree to an independent study with you? Theatre professors are very busy, and independent studies can take a lot of time and energy devoted to just one student. Your proposal must show not only interest but passion for this topic. Remember that Dr. Wilcox has devoted her career to becoming an expert on stage fighting. Your email must convey enthusiasm and respect.
Attitudes and Biases It’s possible Dr. Wilcox does not like independent studies or has had bad experiences with them in the past. How can you convince her to make an exception for you? Professors have to work with la lot of students and have to learn to say “no” to avoid burnout, so she could very well initially react with hesitation to your independent study request. You have to demonstrate that this would not create an undue burden on her time.
Demographics In this scenario, demographics could impact how Dr. Wilcox uses her time and how flexible her schedule is. It certainly isn’t your place to pry or to reinforce stereotypes, but remember that even professors have lives outside of school, and be respectful of work/life balance issues in your independent study proposal. If you know Dr. Wilcox lives an hour away from campus, for example, you shouldn’t propose meeting times on days you know she wouldn’t ordinarily be on campus.

Scenario: You are applying for a scholarship offered from the University of Mississippi School of Nursing to new freshmen pursuing nursing as a career choice. You’re required to write a 250-word application essay demonstrating both your need and your interest in nursing.

Audience: This is a committee of doctors and nurses at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, MS. They not only have medical degrees, but they also teach classes. They are especially interested in candidates who want to work in under-served communities.

Background Knowledge The scholarship committee consists of experienced Nursing faculty members. That means they’re experts at actually being nurses and training new nurses. They know what characteristics strong nursing students display. Your application essay should be honest and straightforward about what has drawn you to the field of nursing. You should also show passion for working in under-served communities in the future, since that’s what the committee is looking for in these applications.
Expectations and Interests Remember that scholarship committees usually have many applications to read. It can be an exhausting and time-consuming process. If you don’t capture their interest in the first few sentences, it’s very likely they will just skim the rest of your essay. You have to demonstrate right away that you’re an ideal applicant. Make yourself stand out in some way that is memorable and relevant, and write concisely. The last thing you want to do is meander in your words.
Attitudes and Biases Since the scholarship review committee sees a lot of applications, they’re probably expecting some “fluff.” Remember that they’re looking for opportunities to thin the pile and discard applications from students who aren’t qualified or serious. Don’t give them any reason to throw your application out. Be concise, on-message, and proofread carefully before you submit.
Demographics You can’t know much about the demographics of the scholarship review committee because you don’t know who serves on it. What you do know is that everyone on the committee is a School of Nursing faculty member. They’re educated and experienced, and they care about under-served communities. They will probably expect competence, passion, and intellectual inquiry in these applications.


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