Who am I writing this article for?

You know how it is. You’ve been working on an article forever, but it just isn’t working. You need to get it submitted, you need to get it published, but it’s just stuck. Maybe it’s been rejected a few times and it’s been a while since you were doing this research, and it’s hard to update it effectively. Maybe you’ve had so much feedback, and rewritten it so many times, you’ve lost your way.

When this happens, you might drop by and have a chat with someone like me. And because this happens a lot, I get a pretty good sense of some of the most common reasons for getting stuck, and what really helps people get unstuck and articles get published.

The biggest problem is the same one that scholars face over and over again. We focus on our work as researchers and writers, and our need to get things published, without thinking about who will read this work. I mean, we think about readers generally in the abstract, and about one or two specific readers (like the reviewers and editor). And yet, every effective piece of writing needs to know, specifically:

  • 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?

Following that, you need to decide where the article will go. You can review recent editions of your target journals 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 after they have read these papers?’

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For articles in particular, the answers to these three questions are usually super-super-specialised, and can be quite different between articles written by the same person. So you need to answer these questions anew every time you submit a new article. Knowing the answers helps frame the argument and conclusions, so it helps fix some major writing and structural issues, and it helps you to submit to the right journals for your work.

If you don’t answer these specific questions, people reading your work are often confused, or they guess the answers (and often guess wrong). As a reader, it’s super annoying to waste time reading something that isn’t useful to me–I’ve always got way too many articles in my ‘to be read’ pile! And as a writer, it’s deeply annoying to get feedback about how you didn’t do this and that, feedback that, had you been writing the project that the reviewer claims you were, you absolutely should have done… but in fact your project is quite different. So being clear in your own mind, and telling the reader about it, is extremely helpful.

These points have a flip side too. It’s a useful reminder that 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). Thus, these specific answers do not necessarily exclude a wider readership, it simply helps wider readers position themselves in relation to your text.

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So, let’s look at some examples, moving from the general to the specific. Let’s make this real.

Let’s take three examples:

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.

What does this writing do?
Provides an overview of recent High Court rulings on First Nations claims which have constitutional significance in Canada.

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.

What outlet is the best way to find these readers?
A Commonwealth Constitutional Law journal, perhaps.

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A second example:

Who is this piece of writing for?
Australian STEM lecturers who are concerned about the lack of women in senior lecturing positions .

What does this writing do?
Details evidence from business literature of the ‘leaky pipeline’ and uses business literature to propose solutions.

What will this really specific audience do with this really specific information? Implement some specific changes to their promotions processes to reduce the loss of women progressing at Lecturer C and D levels.

What outlet is the best way to find these readers?
Maybe a business management journal, or a Higher Education research journal.

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).

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A third example.

Who is this piece of writing for?
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?
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? 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.

What outlet is the best way to find these readers?
Probably a Higher Education research journal.

 

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Now you can go and answer those questions for yourself! Understanding who you are writing your article for can be very helpful in inspiring you to keep going, to get it into the audience’s hands, and to edit your work so it will work for your journal and your readers.

I hope this has helped you to see how you can identify your audience, and identify your call to action through your academic work. 

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