There are many factors to consider before you start writing. In this learning pathway, we focus on five of them: audience, purpose, context, media, which will determine the language you use.
Audience: If you had a favour to ask, would you do it in the same way whether it was aimed at a close friend, your parents or a professor? Probably not. That's because we instinctively adapt our message to those we communicate with. Knowing who your readers are is crucial for a number of reasons. It allows you to use the most appropriate tone for the message you're trying to convey. It also enables you to pick the right words. When you choose words to express your ideas, you have to think not only about what makes sense and sounds good to you, but what will make sense and sound best to your readers. Thinking about your audience and their expectations will help you make decisions about word choice.
Purpose: Why do you write? Is it to educate or entertain? Is it to convince or inform? Identifying the reason(s) behind the piece of writing you're working on − be it a blog, a short story or an academic essay− is essential to avoid missing the mark. After all, you wouldn't use the same language if you were sharing your findings with your fellow students as opposed to writing about your research to educate a mass audience.
Context: Any topic exists within a larger context. Situating the topic historically, rhetorically, and politically, for example, can help you a great deal to figure out what's been said about it and how it's been framed. This in turn can help you outline and formulate your own arguments. Imagine you're writing about the debate surrounding whether or not to immunise children. You could write about the topic from your own perspective but chances are, your text would be much more effective if you understood how this debate came about, how it's been framed in the media, and what arguments have been used on both sides of the question. Understanding the big picture is key to writing effectively no matter what your purpose is.
Media: All children should be immunised. If this was your topic, would you write the same text for an academic essay, an expose in the New York Times, or your blog? Of course not. That's because every medium has different rules. While you may use exactly the same information to write the three texts, you have to adapt to the required format for each medium. For example, your blog or article can contain images to visually support some of your arguments. But academic essays don't include images. This will have an impact on the way your write and the information you choose to include.
Language: The language you use in your writing depends very much on how you've defined the elements above. Always have a mental image of your readers, keep the purpose and context in mind, and remember what medium your writing is intended for. Thinking about language also means thinking about what not to write or choosing your words carefully and sensitively. Just as writers hope their audience will be willing to respect their point of view, they need to respect the diversity of a broad base of readers.