Thinking About Audience

Last month, Rebekah O’Dell tweeted out a link to a piece written by NY Times Columnist, Nicholas Kristof.

I read through Kristof’s “My Worst Columns” piece and was shocked his annual holiday gift guide was one of his lowest-read columns of 2017. I’ve been reading Kristof’s columns for years and look forward to his annual gift guide, which provides meaningful ideas for “the person who has everything” every year.

While Kristof didn’t share stats about his worst columns of 2017, he made it clear that they far under-performed any of his columns that dealt with President Trump.

As Rebekah stated, there are writing lessons we can take away from this. Here are a few that stuck out to me:

  • Know your intended audience. Clearly, Kristof analyzed his columns’ metrics and understands what will lead to large amounts of readers and shares (Anything about Trump.) and what will not (Columns that deal with humanitarian crises and foreign issues). How might knowledge of his audience impact him when choosing topics to tackle this year and beyond?
    • Classroom application: If students know a certain topic will produce a strong reaction (positive or negative), then it’s important to help them think about why they may (or may not) want to select a particular topic.
  • Consider your audience. Once a topic is selected, I think it’s important to think about who is reading our writing since it helps write with someone (other than the teacher) in mind. We write differently depending on who we perceive as our audience.
    • Classroom application: It makes sense for us and our students to think about our readers before and while we are writing.
    • I teach graduate courses on the teaching of writing for teachers in grades K – 12. Teachers publish two pieces at the end of the semester. Partway through, I encourage them to consider their audience since the audience is something that often gets overlooked when people are writing something for a grade.
      • Allan, McMackin, Dawes, and Spadorcia (2009) note: “If students always write for themselves, their peers, and their teacher — those with whom they interact regularly — they never practice constructing meaning for readers who come to the text without a great deal of shared understandings. … Students who write for a variety of purposes learn how purpose changes their writing process and the final product (NCTE/IRA, 1996). Similarly, when students write for different audiences, they learn how to change their processes and products to meet audiences’ needs (p. 3).
    • Audience impacts our purpose. We write differently when we consider our audience. Therefore, I have students fill out a form to help them think deeply about their audience. (Click here to download the Considering Audience form I’ve used with my graduate students.) I’ve found helping students consider their audience helps them revise in ways they never expected they would if they hadn’t spent time thinking about audience during the writing process.
  • Your writing won’t always resonate with people… and that’s okay. There are many important columns Kristof has spent time and his paper’s money researching that have performed low when it comes to stats. However, from the sound of Kristof’s “My Worst Columns” column, he doesn’t have regrets about what he’s written. After all, he stated:
    • “As noted, the common thread of these poorly read columns was, disconcertingly, a spotlight on injustice or humanitarian needs, and my Trump-related columns received incomparably greater readership. But I don’t entirely despair, for my two best-read columns of 2017 were about child marriage in America and about religious hypocrisy in opposing Obamacare, and both of those also have a social justice element.”
    • Classroom application: Not everyone will love every piece of writing we produce. While we want students to consider audience, it’s important to have students select topics that hold meaning and value to them so they’re as invested in their work as Kristof is in his.

I’m not sure if this post will be a flop or not. It contains something you can download and reproduce for your students, but it doesn’t contain any fabulous graphics or book lists. But I think considering audience is as important as writing about things that feel important. And this topic feels important so only time will tell — thanks to the WordPress stats I can check — how this post ages.

What other things might we teach our writers as a result of reading Kristof’s piece on his worst columns? Please read through his column and share your thoughts.