Three possible entry points into assessing an essay—and important considerations for writers as well—are the identification of the essay’s audience, purpose and tone.
“Audience” refers to the readership the writer is writing for—as best we can tell from reading it ourselves. An essay’s intended audience could be the entire world, or the entire English-reading population, or everyone in the United States, or readers of the Washington Post newspaper. It could be a more specific group, such as the ten people on a university admissions committee, or baseball card collectors, or students in a biology class. Understanding the writer’s audience—especially for the writer!—informs decisions about the best way to put forth ideas.
“Purpose” refers to the writer’s reason for writing the essay, or the writer’s goal. Three traditional labels for writers’ purposes are: to inform (report); to persuade (argument); and to entertain. Like many such approaches, these options alone do not cover every writer’s reasons for writing; sometimes two or three of the traditional purposes work together. As readers, we may be unable to know the exact intention of a writer, but we can always make an informed guess about the writer’s apparent purpose that often makes the essay easier to understand, or more memorable, or more meaningful. Putting into words what we perceive as the writer’s purpose can be especially helpful in crafting a thesis in response to an essay, because it involves identifying the author’s thesis.
“Tone” is often explained as the writer’s “attitude” toward the subject of the essay. As writers, deciding on our emotional pitch can keep us focused and build up our own interest in writing. Should we be silly, sarcastic, or deadly serious? As readers, understanding the author’s attitude is very important to understanding the essay’s ideas. Is a writer trying to be funny in order to ‘break the ice’ in an essay about sex...