A Paper as a Self-Sufficient Organism: Notes on Audience and Context -->

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A Paper as a Self-Sufficient Organism: Notes on Audience and Context


Confession: While taking walks, I keep the old, beat-up notes, lists, and letters I find. You know, the scraps of paper that have likely fallen out of someone’s backpack, car, purse, or pocket? In other words, trash? I have a collection. What I like about these scraps is that they provide a window into another person’s world, and I am fascinated by other people. (Incidentally, there is an entire magazine that curates and reprints found items.)

These written scraps, though, are often incomplete. The note begins mid-conversation, the letter refers to events happening the previous week, or the list is untitled. Therefore, it is up to me as the reader to imagine the purpose of such a list or the relationship between letter writer and recipient. I was never intended to be part of the audience, so I have to guess at the context.  

You most definitely do not want this same “guessing” scenario to happen with your academic work. 
Man holding a piece of paper
If someone found your course paper on the street, would they be able to understand your argument?
(Image from morguefile.com)
A paper should be a self-sufficient organism; that is, all of the necessary information should be found within the borders of said paper. Indeed, I tell students to write with enough background so that anyone coming across their work—in the classroom, in a journal, or yes, even on the sidewalk or street—will be able to understand and appreciate the argument. Oftentimes, I see papers that open very specifically, in a way that shuts out any readers who are unfamiliar with the assignment and/or course resources.

Consider the first sentence of this essay: In the video, Jones’s actions reflect the theories of constructivism and multiple intelligences.

As a reader, I am immediately confused. What video? Who is Jones? What actions did he/she take, and in what context? What is the relevance of the theories to those actions?

In this example, the author is referring to a course resource (a video featuring Dr. Jones) and assuming that all readers will know the reference. The author’s professor and fellow students will, but as Nik and Brittany discussed in February’s podcast, the hypothetical reader will not. So in effect, this is an alienating way to start an essay, rather than a welcoming one.

You might have heard a writing instructor say, “Guide the reader into the topic.” Similar advice is “Take a step back and look around. Widen your view.” If we follow these tips in the Jones example, we might get an introduction like this:

Learning theories explain how humans absorb information and process it most effectively (Wendell, 2013). Educators can use these theories to develop their own teaching philosophies and practices. In the recorded classroom observation video, Jones’s group activity reflects the theories of constructivism and multiple intelligences.

This revision both widens the scope (by mentioning learning theories in general) and guides the reader (by connecting the dots from learning theories to actions to classroom observation). We now expect the author to define constructivism and multiple intelligences and show how the group activity illustrates those theories. By using specific examples from the activity, the author can make her point to all readers—and not just those who have actually seen the video.

Next time you are writing, ask yourself, “If Hillary found this paper on the ground, would she immediately understand, or would she have to guess?” I’m happy to play that role.

Other posts you might like: 

WriteCast Episode 6: All About Audience

Hillary Wentworth has worked in the Walden Writing Center since 2010. Besides searching for discarded notes and letters, Hillary enjoys roller-skating, solving crossword puzzles, and basking in the spring sun in Portland, Maine.


  1. Great Article Hillary. I think this will help me get started on writing my Doctoral Study.

  2. This is a simple yet profound way to help my students understand the purpose of writing academic papers.

    1. Wonderful! We're so glad you found Hillary's post helpful, and we hope your students will, too. Thanks for your comment!

  3. I do indeed appreciate this piece of information. I usually blame myself that I give too much detail in very simple scenarios and assignments. but you know what? the times I did not, I got average scores .....so, now this article encourages me to go back to being me...make your readers able to follow your story...thanks a great deal WUWriting Centre

    1. You're welcome, anonymous! There is definitely a balance to strike between giving too much unnecessary detail and giving enough context so that readers can follow your ideas. That little bit of introductory context, written with your readers in mind, goes a long way towards clarity.