Finding a Paper's "Best Reader": a definition and an email exchange
Novice writers imagine that writing "for the general audience" is somehow easier to do effectively than to write for a specific type of well-known reader. Every writer probably should be writing first drafts to discover what s/he wants to say, to express and to discover what is on her/his mind. Once that is done, however, the "best reader" for the paper at hand will help the paper grow into the best supported and most effectively argued version of that first draft idea. Experienced writes use their knowledge of the paper's "best readers" to help to research their papers and to revise them. For a test case, imagine the "best reader" for the assignment to write instructions that will get my Mom to Pearlstone.
A "best reader" differs from any random "general reader" in that the best reader already knows and cares about the paper's general topic, which gives the best reader some basic knowledge of and predictable opinions about the topic. Knowing what the best reader knows and thinks about the topic helps us revise the introduction so that it does not tell the reader things too basic to need saying, and it alerts us to issues the best reader probably would debate or disbelieve without careful persuasion. It also suggests the order in which the best reader would need to be led through the evidence and reasoning, so even the paper's organization can be predicted once we know what its best readers need. Awareness of such "best readers" can help guide papers written for scholarly audiences because scholars always are writing for other scholars, those who already know the topic and care deeply about it. The tricks of journalism and popular fiction, like "grabbing your reader's attention with an outrageous sentence" or using exotic language purely for effect, usually would interfere needlessly in such a communication. This is "heart-to-heart conversation" among professionals who love the topic at hand, and it is among the most satisfying kinds of writing one can engage in.
In the case of the Product Purchase Recommendation, you can begin by picking a product that you or someone you know well is likely to need to buy in the coming year or so. That will motivate your first draft. Further research beyond what you already know, and organization of your report of the results, will require you to generalize from the person or persons you had in mind at first, and to decide what specific needs people like that person would bring to the choice of such a product. That generalized class of "people like that person who need such a product for these reasons" becomes your "best reader" for the PPR. Considering the needs of that "best reader" will help to focus research and the written report on what that best reader probably would need to know, and on what order the best reader would be most ready to follow when learning about the product.
The question below could only be asked by a student who had not yet determined her/his best reader, and the reply attempts to solve that problem.
Sent: Sunday, January 21, 2001 6:25 PM
To: Sanders, Arnie
Subject: Re: English 105 Product Purchase Requisition project
Hi, I have to apologize for the delay, I've been extremely scatterbrained this week. I have been thinking about the possible products, and I have three so far, two fairly mundane, and probably the most likely for you to find appropriate, but the third would be twisting the assignment a little bit, but would make for a very interesting read (more on sources than the actual "product")
Here's the list: Electric Guitar (been meaning to learn guitar after bass); Performance Quality Amplifier for bass; A Belief System ;) (are there ever objective sources, and what greater price than belief?)
Well, I guess there's my list as of now.
Hi back, Student,
You're on track. But don't worry about whether I'll find the products you're researching appropriate unless you're talking about buying a laptop replacement capable of handling web graphics design for a 50-something college professor with a research account running at around $500 and willing to invest some of his own money, or an outdoor, solar-powered fountain pump for a backyard fishpond capable of withstanding a lot of leaf clogging. Those are two things I might be interested in reading about as a private individual, but as your teacher, I'm going to do my best to imitate the behaviors of your "best reader" to the degree that your paper is aware of having one. Do you see what those three descriptions of "the kind of thing they are" have in common. Your third "product" doesn't yet know anything nearly that precise about itself and your first two don't yet fully express it with enough specificity?
Each of my personal product-topics and your first two indicate at least some requirements or issues relevant to a known kind of reader for whom you're designing the paper and whose requirements/issues will help guide your research. We'll discuss that in class when we talk about how to determine your paper's "best reader," but why not get started early?
See you then and thanks for the quick response. Oh, and as you suspected, number 3 may be a high-minded, lifelong quest, but it's unlikely to be doable in the production time you've got for this paper. Consult the syllabus. That, too, is one of the constraints professionals learn to live with. Do what you can now, and do the rest later. But do something now, preferably the best you can do.