For every article (or book chapter), you need to understand who you are writing for to write a strong abstract, a good introduction and conclusion, and to signpost clearly. If you don’t answer these specific questions, people reading your work are often confused, or they guess the answers (and often guess wrong).
For articles, these answers are usually super super specialised, and can be quite different between articles written by the same person. Knowing the answers helps frame the argument and conclusions but also helps you to submit to the right journals for your work.
The questions are:
- Who is this piece of writing for?
- What is this piece of writing doing?
- What will those people do with it once they’ve read it?
Academic readers always read with a purpose–they have very limited time for reading just for interest or pleasure, so you need to think about why they are in the library catalogue/database in the first place.
Let’s show some examples which you might find useful. See how specific they are? It’s not ‘everyone’, or even ‘everyone in my sub-field’.
Who is this piece of writing for?
Australian Constitutional lawyers who are interested in Indigenous issues who would like to know about recent developments in Canada and if they are relevant to Australia
Australian STEM lecturers who are concerned about the lack of women in senior lecturing positions
Australian and UK doctoral development professionals who work alongside supervisors to support PhD candidates and are worried about completion rates
What does this writing do?
Provides an overview of recent High Court rulings on First Nations claims which have constitutional significance in Canada.
Details evidence from business literature of the ‘leaky pipeline’ and uses business literature to propose solutions.
Outlines a case study from one university implementing a new candidature management system and tracking completion rates.
What will this really specific audience do with this really specific information?
Be aware of the differences between Canada and Australia, and so see that the legal challenges are not likely to take the same form in an Australian court system.
Implement some specific changes to their promotions processes to reduce the loss of women progressing at Lecturer C and D levels.
Make changes to their candidature policy which develop oral presentation skills as well as written skills. at each year of candidature, in order to build an intellectual community of informed co-researchers within the institution.
So you might place these articles in Commonwealth Constitutional Law journals, or a business management journal, or a Higher Education research journal. You can review recent editions and see ‘are these people my audience? Is this where they come for the kind of information I want to give them? Do they do the kinds of things I want them to do out of these papers?’ It might be that a management journal is not widely read by STEM academics, but a Physics journal is not generally read for management information. Sometimes interdisciplinary work is best placed in very specific journals (a Journal of Higher Education Management Studies) and sometime in very broad journals (I often read articles like this in Nature).
You can use these questions as a kind of ‘fish-skeleton’ to structure your argument and plan your writing too. This is a useful process for planning conference papers (using a Tiny Text or similar technique), or for writing book proposals.
Ironically, these specific answers do not necessarily exclude a wider readership, it simply helps wider readers position themselves in relation to your text.
Readers have agency and read against around and through your work, taking what they need or want. They may disagree with your findings, or only need the middle section for their current research, or be not your first audience but still interested.
I’ve recently been reading articles that are precisely up my alley–an article on the sociology of technology and musicology ticked all my boxes. I was the imagined reader. I’ve also been reading some Sara N Ahmed writing particularly for queer Women of Colour doing diversity work in university institutions. I’m not her first audience, but because she is so clear about who she is writing for, I know how to read as an outsider in the text–how to interpret and translate her work in ways that sometimes apply to me (and sometimes apply against me). And I’ve been pillaging Kate Raworth’s book on socially responsible economics for a project on university cultures. I’ve skimmed and skipped most of the text and just extracted some ideas that are relevant to my completely different project!
Being specific about your audience thus helps you to write, to get published, to get read, and when you are being read, to be useful. It’s a really effective skill. How would the audience for your current article?