Thursday, December 11, 2014

Audience? What's that then?

This is a post I've had as a draft since last year and never published. It seems quite a good moment to post it now as I'm in the same place again teaching-wise, not to mention being too immersed in work to write a new one. 

Just in case any of you don't know this by now, I'm a teacher. It's how I make my living and it's the day job I'm not about to give up because truth to tell, I really enjoy it. I know, I know. I moan and groan about having to work, but the rewards of really helping my students achieve something they've previously been unable to do is verging on addictive. Oh did I mention that my subject is writing? In English. Surprised? No, well, maybe not.

Sometimes I teach oral English skills. I'm doing that now with two groups of first year International Business students. They are a delight, but as yet, they haven't grasped the fact that seventy percent of their oral communication is about non-oral communication and reaching out to their listeners or audience needs more than mere words.

Like most teenagers, they think that surly and sulky looks lean and mean. They'll learn in time that a smile will leapfrog the inch and carry them a mile. They'll also learn that while accuracy in spoken language is admirable, it's something few people - even native speakers - achieve, so it's not the most important consideration.

Mostly, though, I teach writing skills to Master's students, Phd'ers and administrative staff, and I love that. I feel that accuracy and variety of language are much more important in the written than in the spoken word - not that I count myself as any kind of expert, especially as I'm nowhere in the PhD'ers league. But what I can help them to understand is the importance of knowing that whatever they write is largely determined by the expectations of those reading it. It's also about the craftsmanship of putting ideas, thoughts and opinions into textual form in a way that exactly suits the reader - or as we like to call it, the audience.

As a writing teacher, I've become very aware that this aspect is often ignored but incredibly important. I show my students models to demonstrate the difference between an academic text, a narrative text and a business text - how to say essentially the same thing for three different readers. It amazes them, and to be honest, it still amazes me too. I love the fact that we can re-shape, re-structure and re-package our language in this way and for me, this is one of the major delights of the written word.

So which style do I like best? That's hard to say. One of the most appreciative audiences I've ever had consisted of the management of the health insurance company where I worked for ten years in South Africa. It was my job to write the 'visit reports' - accounts of meetings with member firms I'd been to see as part of my job as assistant marketing manager. In theory, these should have been dry factual accounts, but I enjoyed adding my own take to the reports; brief descriptions of the people I'd met, the offices they worked in or the other employees in the firms, so in truth they were more like short articles or interviews than minutes of meetings. That said, if the managers hadn't told me they looked forward to reading my weekly write-ups, or if they'd criticised my style, I'm sure I'd have changed it, but my audience was receptive and so I carried on.

This brings me to the point that isn't really much of a point. I'm just rambling really. But the point is (yes?) it doesn't matter so much what you write as long as you write it right for the right types. So that's it. The audience is what matters, and in a language generally regarded as being 'writer responsible', it's our task to keep our readers happy by writing in a style they expect and like for the content they've chosen to read.

Sounds easy doesn't it? Well luckily for the teacher me it isn't, because if it were, I'd be out of a job. For the writer me, well that's another story. I wish it were just a bit easier to find the right audience…but I'll keep trying.

19 comments:

  1. It reminds me of the extraordinary conversation I had in a plaza in Cuba with an English teacher - anxious to teach science students to express themselves accurately. So we had a long discussion about whether one should say, 'Do you have any sugar?' or 'Do you have some sugar?' His scenario was running out of the wretched sugar and going next door to ask for it. I still don't know the answer!

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    1. Ha, yes! I remember that from Vultures! I don't think there is an answer to that one Jo. It's a question of rules versus common usage, isn't it? A real conundrum. I constantly have to tell my students that while one form may be grammatically correct, they're unlikely to hear it used in every day speech. Very confusing for them!

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  2. Val. I taught for years as well. English too. Hope you don't judge us too harshly (writers). Your students sound delightful. Love teaching to an appreciative group. Also had to jot this down, "a smile will leapfrog the inch and carry it a mile " Love it, Lynn

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    1. Fellow teachers too, are we, Lynn? That's another thing we have in common then. And of course I don't judge :) I am not an expert either.

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  3. This is all so true. I am now teaching English to care home staff and many of them are from Eastern Europe. They are a lovely bunch and we have some fun, but I think the best bit is trying to explain some of the spoken English as opposed to the written English, can get messy! I always tell my leaners to remember the reader in everything they write.
    I hope you and your family have a lovely Christmas and A Happy New Year. You are a special person and I really hope that 2015 is when we finally get to meet face to face xxxx

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    1. Oh Fran, I do hope we meet in 2015 too!! How lovely to be teaching such an appreciative group! That must be just lovely! xxx

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  4. Hi Val - yes as Fran says above the reader in everything they write, but too the 'ear' as those words will come across 'spoken' in one form or another.

    I know I'm lucky ... I've been able to find an audience ... despite being positively hopeless at school ... with English and history and probably communication - some things come to us - when they're ready to ... and I seem to be one of those ...

    I hadn't realised exactly what you were doing .. but this now makes sense ... it's making 'lessons' enjoyable isn't it .. teaching and encouraging as we pursue our passions ..

    Cheers and have a happy build up to Christmas and 2015 .. Hilary

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    1. Hilary, you've found a passion and have taught yourself some incredible things! Motivation is the key to all learning, isn't it? My job is to try and motivate those who are not as eager for knowledge as you are. Thank you for the Christmas wishes!

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  5. Hi Val. You make a very valid point about considering the audience. I remember going to writing class and hearing 'simplify, clarify and edit'. My problem is I love the academic style of writing and usually cull what I write by half!
    A merry christmas to you on your boat. Val.

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    1. Valerie, my vice is adverbs. I love them, but I spent a lot of editing time deleting them…yes, that simplify, clarify, edit is good advice for those of us who love a bit of verbal extravagence :)

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    2. Oh and Merry Christmas to you too!

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  6. Simone has started teaching English once a week but her class is young children. She's enjoying it a lot.

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    1. I'm sure that's right up her street, Stu! Happy Christmas to you both and to Sophie as well xxx

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  7. It's a bit like life really. We act differently in our different roles; mother, teacher, friend etc. In the same way we have to tailor our writing to the circumstances. A newspaper article has a very different style to a short story etc. It's a topic that fascinates me.

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    1. You're so right there, Ros! And yes, it fascinates me too. Hoping you are having a kind winter and a lovely festive season.x

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  8. I don't think you need to worry about finding the right audience, Val - your own voice, in your writing, your responses and tweets, is irresistible.

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    1. Hello, June! How wonderful to see you here too! Thank you so much for these very kind words. That really is a lovely thing to say. I shall now have to visit you immediately. I didn't know you were on blogger….?

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  9. I think English must be a difficult language to learn as so many of our words mean different things. Some of our most learned people don't know how to express themselves in a letter. I remember while working in the doctor's surgery the doctor would often read us a letter from a hospital consultant that she just couldn't understand. To think that he had dictated it and then a secretory had toyed it with the same mistakes made us laugh. I once did a sign language course and you had to be so expressive with signing and not just with your face with your whole body. The younger people found this very embarrassing as most of us did but it broke the ice and soon we were very good at it.

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    1. Anne, what a lovely story! I'd love to learn to sign! You're right about English being difficult to get right. I've just watched some interviews with real English people and I have to say their grammar was really horrible. Makes it harder for foreigners to learn when even we don't speak 'proper like' :)

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