The Audience Unveiled

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The Audience Unveiled

The value of a book depends on the audience. The audience values in a book what is useful. But what is useful to a writer may be junk to those who don’t care to write. I am a writer. I can use a book that gives lessons in writing, a book that helps me write better. I don’t find a book on dry-wall installation useful; it may be entertaining, but entertaining is not useful. A useful book is important where an entertaining book is insignificant. However, one book may have both qualities; especially if that book is trying to reach a broad audience. But a book trying to reach the narrow audience runs the risk of being completely useless and utterly insignificant to a lot of people.

Books that target broad audiences differ from books that target narrow audiences. From appearance to content, the books differ. The differences in two books can say a lot about the audience that the author had in mind. Authors understand that the world’s collective group of readers is huge, so huge that one book can’t be useful to everyone. The author picks an audience if she wants to reach anyone. The targeted audience will respond to a specific style.

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Style is a complex value or idea that writers express in their books. The expression is voiceless, it is underneath, it is hidden; but it can be found. Close analysis will uncover the style and reveal the audience. Joseph M. Williams, in his book Style Toward Clarity and Grace does not target the same audience that William Strunk and E.B. White target in The Elements of Style; the two books use separate definitions of the term “style” to reach different audiences.

Joseph M. Williams, in Style Toward Clarity and Grace, uses a style that targets professional writers. The writers that he wants to reach are working writers. They have finished school, or will be finishing school soon. Writers of this juncture differ from writers at earlier stages, writers starting college or finishing high school. Early-stage writers have different goals and needs. Later-stage writers need information that is more in depth. In depth means more detail and greater explanation.

Joseph M. Williams’ book gives greater explanation than Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Strunk and White are targeting early-stage writers; Williams’ depth is not useful to them. Depth is useful to later-stage writers because their writing has the possibility of being published. These are the people who publish scholarly articles or journals. This is why Joseph Williams goes into such great detail when explaining bad writing and where it comes from. In the chapter “Causes”, Williams gives three “private causes of bad writing”. The first cause is seen when he says, “ . . . others use difficult or intimidating language to protect what they have from those who want a share of it: the power, prestige, and privilege that go with being a part of the ruling class” (11). This explanation is useful to later-stage writers because they have seen a lot of writing that reflects this and are at risk of doing it themselves; they are at the phase in life where others see them as authorities on writing, a dangerous place. And Williams gives two more causes, the third one is the relevant one here:

Finally, some of us write badly not because we intend to or because we never learned how, but because occasionally we seem to experience transient episodes of stylistic aphasia. Occasionally, many of us write substantially less well than we can, but we seem unable to do anything about it. This kind of dismaying regression typically occurs when we are writing about matters that we do not entirely understand, for readers who do. (11)
This explanation is useful to late-stage writers because, unlike early-stage writers, they have an audience more expansive than one teacher. Their audience also is unknown, the audience could be anyone, even experts. Williams’ readers, the late-stage writers, need information that can help them convey their message to a broad audience.

Williams shows that the published text uses different rules than the unpublished text for a class. In the chapter called “Usage”, Williams says there are rules, and there is folklore. He says that, “Some rules characterize the basic structure of English”, and that “Some rules distinguish standard from nonstandard speech” (176). He is talking about the things that most high school graduates always follow without attention. Then he says that, “A second group of rules includes those whose observance we do not remark, and whose violation we do not remark either” (181). Here he is talking about rules that people, even teachers, disagree on, that that don’t confuse readers if violated. A late-stage writer learns from this that rules are only important if they help the reader to understand the text. Late-stage writers, for the sake of their audience, should only be concerned about transmitting what they have to say to the reader in the most understandable style.

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style targets early-stage writers. Early-stage writers are writing for classes, their only audience is the teacher and a handful of students. The rules that this book includes are the rules that Williams calls folklore. But the folklore is useful to early-stage writers because they aren’t ready for anything in depth yet. The folklore is not an in depth style, it is very cut and dry, very simple, easy to follow, and obvious when violated. The writers here need practice and experience before they are ready to grasp what Williams says; by studying and following Strunk and White’s folklore they grow up as writers. Strunk and White give them a foundation. The chapter, “Elementary Rules of Usage”, has things like possessive singulars, where to put commas, and how to use a colon. This is useful for an early-stage writer because it helps them learn terms, and because it helps them begin to think about writing as a structural thing, something that is built with a formula, something that can be made with a recipe. The chapter, “Misused Words and Expressions”, has things like, say different from not different than. These rules are useful to early-stage writers because it slows down their writing, makes them think more when they are writing. Early-stage writers need a place to start; they are the students who have little experience and weak intellects. Strunk and White’s book gets them ready for more in depth conceptual information. Williams’ book would not be useful to these writers; they are not ready for it. The folklore style is a beginning.

These two books, The Elements of Style and Style Toward Clarity and Grace, use style as a way of targeting audiences. Their styles come through in the rules that they give and the explanations. Williams has rules that professional writers find useful, Strunk and White have rules that students can use. Williams explains his rules in great detail, Strunk and White simplify and don’t explain at all. The writers use style to teach style; style is dependant on the audience. Different audiences respond to different styles.


Works Cited


Strunk, William, and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. Needham Heights:
Massachusetts, 2000.

Williams, Joseph M. Style Toward Clarity and Grace. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1990.


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