In order to figure out your audience, consider the assignment.
Writing instructions will sometimes include the purpose or the scenario for a paper topic. For example: a professor may ask his or her class to write a letter to a political figure, to "your future self," or to create an informative pamphlet for a certain demographic of reader.
However, many assignments will not directly list the identity of the audience. In most cases we assume our reader/s to be the instructor or our fellow classmates.
Beware: this assumption can be dangerous.
Students who automatically assume that their audience is the teacher and/or their classmates run the risk of missing the point of the assignment. For example, if the professor assigns the class to write a informative pamphlet on smoking geared towards teenagers, then we should use language directed to them rather than the professor.
Using plain language in this scenario is a better choice. The author of such a pamphlet must not use specialized jargon or complicated medical terms. The point of the assignment would be missed, and the student can be in jeopardy of receiving a lower grade.
There is more to consider than just language; consider content as well.
Oversimplifying the content can be another risk when considering the audience. Writers can be too vague when they believe their audience is just as informed on the subject matter as they are. This is especially true when the audience is the professor or fellow students.
The trick here is to achieve a good balance. Don't over explain or understate.
Put yourself in the shoes of the audience. Ask yourself these questions:
- What is the typical language style expected by your reader?
- What will the reader want to know?
- How much will they want or need to know about the topic?
- What is the purpose or importance of the subject to your reader?