An email conversation with Julie (what a world we live in where the phrase "email conversation" actually makes sense, eh?) got me thinking about audience. I've written before about some of the reasons I started blogging: to expand my writer's voice outside of academic rhetoric and to more actively participate in the conversation I was following on academic blogs. As both voice and conversation are welded to audience I think it makes sense to address it here.
While I do not teach writing as a course I do infuse teachings about writing in all my courses and my interactions with my student research team. I do this because I think education is about extending our thinking and I believe writing is directly related to thinking. Often we don't know what we think until we write it down. The act of writing leads to a re-vision of both our thinking and our written work. But I, once again, digress.
One of the things I like to discuss with my students is the concept of audience. Identifying your intended audience while you are writing affects your writing deeply. Sometimes the effect is positive but often it can be negative. Not having a specific audience or having multiple audiences often leads to muddled writing. More often we have critical audiences in our heads and this can cause very stilted, overly careful writing or no writing at all. I like to tell students that we can not only choose the audience in our mind but we can change that audience with each draft.
For myself, if I'm writing an academic piece--particularly one that is difficult or new to me--my first audience is two of my BFFs and partners-in-research-crime: A-girl and Sparkle (otherwise known as "the girls"). We've worked together for years doing collaborative writing and sharing drafts. They "get me," they know my work, they always provide useful suggestions and positive feedback. Now I'm not saying I necessarily show them the piece but my first draft is written (almost as a letter) to them. This way I can explain my work and my ideas to a friendly and supportive audience. It makes it easy to get a draft out. However once the draft is written I realize that, since they know my work so well, I have let out details and the draft would be confusing to people without an intimate knowledge of my agenda. So my next draft is either to a friendly colleague at work or, if I'm feeling confident, an imaginary friendly reviewer. The final draft is usually written to an imaginary critical reviewer or my previous boss/mentor--who is skeptical of the type of research I do now. This forces me to write tightly and to "cover my a$$," if you will.
So what does this have to do with blogs and email conversations, you ask? Well exactly that--I now have a "you" that is asking (ok, maybe you're not but I now imagine you asking). When I started this blog my "audience" was a faceless, nameless blogosphere. I started writing not knowing if I would continue but more importantly not knowing who, if anyone, would be writing. Now I have a--admittedly very small-- handful of regular readers who not only provide feedback through comments and email but I follow their stories and know them (in that strange kind of knowing but not really knowing internet-way).
So I've been asking myself--who am I writing to? How does it change my writing? And what about the ones who don't comment (yes I know there are at least a few lurkers out there)--how do they affect my writing? I also think about my archive. I realize that both my present and past writing is out there for yet-to-be-discovered audiences--how does that idea affect my writing? Or maybe it doesn't?
In some ways it definitely feels easier to come up with post topics and to write them as I have a specific and friendly audience in mind. However, as I often do with friends, I'm more likely to blurt out personal information that might best be left unsaid/written. Blogs are a public forum and not a private conversation. What might be understood or appreciated in the context of friendship can be taken quite differently by a stranger. In truth we are writing for two very different audiences. Keeping that balance in mind and not producing muddled or stifled writing is a tricker task than I first imagined.
*Much of my thinking on writing in this post is based on books I've read on strategies of writing (academic: Boice & Silvia, creative: Le Guin & Brande) and teaching writing (Elbow).