Establishing Purpose, Role, and Audience

Lesson Content

Inquire: The Basic Core of the Paper


DecorativeWhen we think about the essence of a paper – underneath the paragraphs and sources, even beyond the bare bones of your sentences – there are basically three questions that need to be answered. What do you want to say? Why do you want to talk about it? And, who are you talking about it with? By answering these questions, you are establishing your purpose in writing your paper, your role in writing it, and the audience you are writing it for.

Big Question

What are the fundamentals of any paper?

Watch: Underneath the Bare Bones

Read: Purpose, Role, and Audience

An Interlocking Triad

The key to writing an effective essay may well be found by understanding the interplay between the purpose of your paper, the audience you are writing for, and the role you play as the writer. Each of these elements is dependent upon and defined by the other. Without a proper amount of thought given to each of these, your essay may miss its mark.Decorative

Having a strong understanding of your purpose in writing an essay will give you a good idea of what approach you should take. This, in turn, helps define your role and audience, so developing your purpose should be your first priority. Once that is completed, your role should flow logically from that purpose; is your aim to inform, examine, or do you want to prove a theory? However you decide to define your role – and there are multiple ways to do so – just remember that your role will help determine your audience. When you decide who it is that you want to read and understand your essay, you clarify who your audience is.

Keeping track of each of these things can seem daunting. However, if you start your essay with these already in mind, you can hold yourself accountable for adhering to what you have decided as you move through the writing process. Just focus on writing an essay that is clear and well-defined, and routinely revisit these elements as you do so.

Establishing Purpose

Establishing the purpose of your paper essentially comes down to asking yourself, “What do I want to say and why?” The answer to that question should be straightforward. For instance, do you want to inform? Persuade? Defend? Hypothesize? Explain? These are just some of the different purposes you can intend for your paper, and you may find that you have more than one. To establish role and audience, you will want to prioritize the most important purpose, so make sure you narrow it down to one or two.

Within the structure of your paper, your thesis statement transmits your purpose. Because your purpose must be clear to your audience, your thesis statement should be direct and concise; you don’t want there to be any ambiguity about what you are saying and why you are saying it.

Your Role as the Writer

In the role of the writer, you explore your responsibility to both your subject and your audience. Your role is not static and will vary from one writing opportunity to the next in reaction to who your audience is, what your purpose is, and how you intend to achieve it. If your purpose is to explain – perhaps you want a general audience to grasp a complex subject – your role is to present that subject in a simple, easy to understand way. If you are arguing or defending a position, and your audience is someone on the opposing side, your role is to present your argument as strongly as possible, while still using fact-based research to support your position.

At a basic level, your role as a writer is to write truthfully, no matter what kind of paper you are writing. When you write truthfully, you expound on something that you feel is worthy of discussion and is important for your audience to know. You present your position as accurately and as thoroughly researched as possible.

Relating to Your Audience

DecorativeRelating to your audience involves two vital steps: identifying who your audience is, and determining how to best present your subject given what you know, or can infer, about your audience. Once you have a picture in your head of who your audience is, you then need to craft your paper with that audience in mind. You will take into consideration how you introduce a subject, as well as the kind of language you use to explore it throughout your paper. If your audience is more general, your introduction may start with an overview of your subject, and then focus in on your thesis. It may even include a general introduction of terms or a history of your subject. If you are writing for a more specific and specialized audience, your introduction might begin from a position of assumed basic knowledge. In other words, if you can expect your audience to know the general subject well, you can start from a more specific place. The amount of jargon you use in your paper will also largely depend on your audience for the same reasons. If you are writing for a more general audience, the style and content of your essay should be easily understandable. If you anticipate that your audience will have some sophistication regarding your subject, you can assume that they will understand and even expect the use of specialized terms and complex analyses of the issues you are writing about.

Reflect: Where Do You Find the Fundamentals?


Purpose, role, and audience are fundamental concepts to writing that should guide you through the entire process of your paper. Because of this, there are many ways these elements can present themselves in your writing.

Of the three items below, which do you think is the most obvious sign of the fundamentals in a piece of writing?

Expand: Drafting with Purpose, Role, and Audience in Mind

Investigate: Keeping the Fundamentals in View

DecorativeAs previously stated, it can seem daunting to simultaneously maintain awareness – of the purpose of your paper, your role as the writer, and the audience you are writing for – and actually write the paper. Remember though, these elements are so fundamental to an essay that once you’ve defined them, it isn’t hard to write with them in mind. However, if you aren’t careful, losing track of these fundamentals can cause your paper to go off the rails. So, how do you make sure your paper is based on purpose, role, and audience from beginning to end? Here are few tricks to help you maintain focus while writing.

Write Your Thesis Statement First

Getting your thesis statement written might seem like an obvious first step; however, writing a paper straight through from beginning to end can be the fastest way to complete an assignment, so some writers may choose to start with the introduction and go on from there. While that isn’t necessarily wrong, if your introduction isn’t leading to a thesis that is already formulated, it can turn into a rambling opening that will lose your reader’s interest.

Think About a Specific Member of Your Intended Audience

DecorativeWriting for a group of people, each with their own diverse personalities and opinions, or perhaps with personalities or opinions you don’t even know, can make it hard to focus your language. You may find that your writing drifts stylistically, from formal to more casual, as you work your way through the paper. Instead of envisioning your audience as a large, diverse group of people, try writing your paper for a person you know who would be part of your intended audience. They don’t necessarily need to be someone who will read your paper, just someone who fits the profile of those who will be reading it. You might just think of your teacher or professor if this is a class assignment. Either way, giving yourself a specific idea of how your reader will respond to your writing can be very helpful to the flow of your language.

Don’t Take Shortcuts That Your Audience Can’t Follow

As the writer, you are your audience’s guide to your paper. Think about the responsibilities taken on by guides in other areas. If you are a guide who is ushering a group up Mount Everest, your responsibility is to make sure everyone knows what to expect on the hike, has what they need to proceed, keeps up with the group, knows what comes next, and can follow along. Taking a shortcut that your group is not prepared for could have catastrophic consequences.

Your responsibility as your audience’s guide to your paper is similar. All too often, when we are writing, we assume the audience has the same knowledge we do, and we take shortcuts — omitting necessary background information, missing a logical step in our argument, or referencing things we have not introduced. You need to resist that inclination. You want your audience to be able to understand your thesis, know the points that you will make, and follow along as your paper progresses. With that in mind, when you are writing, remember to make sure each idea is connected to the next in a way that makes sense not just to you, but to your reader. If you do this, your paper will be cohesive and more likely to keep your reader engaged.

Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings


A list of purposes for the writer to consider on a topic, as well as purposes of the audience
Source: Online Writing Lab, Purdue University.

Audience, Purpose, and Thesis

A run-down of paper writing with an emphasis on purpose and audience
Source: University of Wisconsin, Platteville

Writing for an Audience

An article with good points about audiences and how to write toward them, as well as some more resources for you to view
Source: University of Maryland University College

Lesson Glossary


AJAX progress indicator
  • fundamental
    a central or primary rule
  • hypothesize
    to present and explain a theory

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Matt Huigens for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA

Media Sources

DecorativeBrainstormingJ. Kelly BritoUnsplashPublic Domain
DecorativeBlank Business Close Up CompositionPixabayPexelsPublic Domain
DecorativeAdult Blur Book CloseupRawpixel.comPexelsPublic Domain
DecorativeBlack Binocular on Round DeviceSkitterphotoPexelsPublic Domain
DecorativeDesigner at work Jose AljovinUnsplashPublic Domain

Check Your Knowledge

Use the quiz below to check your understanding of this lesson’s content. You can take this quiz as many times as you like.