Discovering Your Best Readers: Tell My Mom How to Get to Pearlstone
For any given writing assignment, your paper's "best readers" are those for whom the paper will be most effective. The effect might be to solve a problem they already are aware of, or to make them aware of a problem they did not perceive. The paper might change their minds about something important to them, or it might keep them from abandoning an intellectual position they were considering abandoning. Academic readers, fortunately, are highly predictable because they are intensely focused by their professional training and concerns. This makes them enormously easier to write for than the invisible and unknowable "general audience" or "anyone who wants to know about X" readers that first-year writers often begin trying to address.
When trying to explain the advantages of knowing your paper's "best readers," I commonly offer this exemplary situation: tell my mom how to get to Pearlstone, a large, well-known building on the Goucher campus. Pick any local landmark and someone known to you but unknown to those you are talking to, and the problem quickly is exposed as a problem of audience, as much as a problem of task.
Any member of the class can tell any other member how to get to Pearlstone. Depending on where the classroom is, they may be able to lean out the window and point to it. They all can tell me how to get to Pearlstone. This is because we share a common context of information about the place and our current location, we share a common perception of each other's skills and awareness, and we share a common language of explanation. Add "Mom" to the equation and all those shared commonalities vanish. You have to know "Mom" in order to explain anything to her.
Does "Mom" know where Towson, Maryland is? Where is "Mom" starting from? Does "Mom" drive? Does "Mom" have any impairments of movement which might make your instructions irrelevant or even insulting? Does "Mom" have any previous associations with Towson, Goucher, or Pearlstone which might affect her reception of your instructions about how to get there? Can "Mom" hear you or do you have to write the instructions, and in what language should you communicate with "Mom." Is "Mom" friendly or hostile to you? Does "Mom" speak/read English?
Replace "Mom" with the representative best readers in the situation in which you are writing, and you will have a similar set of questions that will start to arise about what your best readers bring to the task of reading your paper. Ignore them at your peril. Let them help you, instead. They are particularly good at suggesting what should be in introductions, the paper's paragraph order and paragraph transition, kinds and qualities of supporting evidence, conclusions, and even format. For English 105, you can assume all your best readers care about the proper operation of the English language and conformity with MLA document style. Moreover, as you strive to meet the College Writing Proficiency criteria, your best readers will be presumed to be academic scholars in the discipline you are writing about. For that reason, you can and must assume the following things about them before you start the paper:
1) They are familiar with your primary source--they know about the kind of product you will be recommending in the first assignment; they will have read the Hawthorne short stories you will be writing about in the second assignment; they will have seen the films you are writing about in the third assignment; and they will know about the topic and controversy you are researching in the independent research project. Your introduction never will discuss the primary source as if it were "news" to these readers, though you should remind them about the specific evidence or reasoning your thesis will focus on.
2) They will not know what you have discovered by asking well-focused questions, following your "insight detector," combining multiple sources to produce unique combinations of reasoning and evidence. That will be your thesis, your "news" to communicate to them.
3) They will assume that only expert secondary sources will be admissible as evidence, and for that reason, they will reject without hesitation any argument which uses suspect sources like (but not limited to) Wikipedia, Internet sites maintained by anonymous persons, Internet sites maintained by named persons who are amateurs in the subject area, Internet sites maintained by professionals who are not professionals in a field relevant to the topic, or Internet sites maintained by professionals but not peer-reviewed by other professionals, unless such a site has been qualified for specific purposes in the paper and justified in an endnote.