The question of how to pitch a piece of academic writing for assessment is a tricky one. Who exactly is the audience, how much knowledge or interest can be assumed, what needs to be clarified, in order for an essay or report to be easily understood by the reader? Getting this wrong can result in an assignment not doing justice to its author’s learning, and a lower mark than deserved.
Academic writing is ‘writerly’* – the responsibility for ‘meaning-making’ lies with the author, freeing the reader up to do what they need to do – critique, assess, learn, synthesise, think. This is the opposite to creative writing, which is ‘readerly’* – the enjoyment of a novel or poem is in the reader’s input, figuring out what it all means, what might happen next, ‘whodunnit’. In an academic essay or report, the student needs to make a number of decisions about the reader, to judge what work they themselves need to put in as writers. The tricky bit lies in the hierarchy of experience and knowledge of the discipline- which lies more with the reader than with the writer in this instance.
To help make decisions about pitch, students are often given the advice to ‘write as if for a lay audience – someone intelligent who doesn’t know much about the subject’. This advice is intended to help them identify the assumptions they’re making about the reader and what might be ‘clear’ to them, work harder to make the writing appealing, and help them figure out what meaning-making work they need to do on the reader’s behalf, so their arguments come across clearly. In essence, to err on the side of caution in deciding what they need to be explicit about.
But if you think about it, it’s odd advice.
The audience for a traditional essay is not a lay audience. It is not someone who knows little about the subject, or who has little intrinsic motivation to read about it. It’s the precise opposite – most academic writing for assessment is created for people who know quite a bit more about the subject than the student does, and have a vested interest in reading it. This odd dissonance – writing for someone who knows a lot, as if they knew nothing – can actually create more problems than it solves. Firstly, ‘a lay audience’ is in itself very diverse yet not very precisely defined – what kind of lay person are we pitching this to? An uninterested schoolkid with little wider context, someone who did a degree years ago and maintains a lingering interest, literally ‘the man in the street’? This advice doesn’t help the student decide what level of clarification is needed – they know they can’t assume no knowledge and go right back to explaining the very basics from scratch, but where between ‘no knowledge’ and ‘more knowledge than me’ should they pitch their writing? And in puzzling this out, they’re circling around the issue that the ‘lay readership’ is inauthentic anyway – the writing is primarily, perhaps solely, for the audience of their marker. Why pretend otherwise?
Instead, I tend to reframe it this way – yes, you’re writing for your lecturer. Yes, they probably know and understand more than you do. But they don’t know how much you know. They know how they would interpret your data, but they don’t know that that’s how you interpret it. They know how they define that term, but they don’t know if you understand it in the same way. They know what obvious conclusion they would draw, but they can’t assume what conclusion you’re coming to. They know what they’ve taught you, but they don’t know what you’ve learned. They’ve already done their learning; they want to see evidence of yours.
I suggest that students remember that they’re writing for assessment, and consider this question- what knowledge, understanding, etc, do you need to demonstrate to your reader to show you meet the assessment criteria at the right level? I ask them, ‘if you were marking this, what evidence of what learning would you want to see?’
And forget about ‘being clear’; ‘clear’ is not an objective term. It means different things to different people. Instead, I suggest that students aim for lack of ambiguity:
is there any room for your reader to understand your meaning differently to the way you intended, or to be unsure whether you’re reaching the same conclusions that they are, for the same reasons, or to doubt that you know what you’re talking about? That’s where you need to think about pitching it.
*the terminology is from Barthes, but I tend to use them the other way round with students, as out of context, it’s confusing to talk of a writerly text being one in which the reader makes the meaning!