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Apphia Duey

Fredrik DeBoer

WRT 303

14 February 2011

Audience, Purpose, and Action: Defining Public Writing

“The first principle of a free society

is an untrammeled flow of words in an open forum.”
~Adlai E. Stevenson~
Whether it is sprawled across billboards, splashed onto posters, announced in press

releases or written into speeches, public writing in democratic societies takes many forms and

addresses multiple issues. However, with such a broad range of forms and uses, public writing as

a scholarly endeavor remains difficult to define. Though it begins, in the broadest sense, as any

written message aimed towards a theoretically limitless audience, its uses as a scholarly activity

complicate the act of public writing by addressing audience, intent, and the need for change.

In its most general form, public writing makes a claim that is visible to the public.

However, the claims made within the writing itself do not question ideology or present issues

that spark disagreement. Instead, the aim is to present information for the audience. These

statements which are written in public spaces provide only the basic framework of public writing

as an area of study. However, when a writer presents statements or ideas that relate or stem from

ideological concerns, political views, or concepts that spark disagreement, the writing no longer

fits into the broadest category of public writing. In these cases, the ideas presented by the author

can potentially lead to discussion of ideological concepts, a fact that characterizes it as a slightly

narrower type of public writing. Though an author may choose a theological or political topic,

their goal is to lay out their ideas without expecting any societal change stemming from the

readers. Though the writing may successfully argue toward a specific goal, id does not solicit
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action beyond internal thought and discussion. That specific type of public writing is its own


This third layer of public writing, activist writing, provokes discussion and directly

results in action taken by the audience that accesses it. Thus, it is writing that is again geared

toward a theoretically endless audience, but it discusses ideological or social ideas and takes a

clear stance on the issue in such a way that readers are moved to action. It has the ability to cause

readers to act in specific ways, based on how the writing influenced them individually. It is not

enough, then, for activist writing to successfully argue an issue or change the internal thoughts of

the reader. Instead, the true measure of activist writing is determined by the actions that readers

take based on the impact that the writing has upon them. Without this essential ingredient, the

writing remains an ideological or politically charged text.

Though each of the three purposes of public writing—whether it be to write information-based

statements in public spaces, to formulate writing based on ideological ideas, or to stimulate the

audience to actively respond, each type has its own uses, depending heavily on the situation at


With three levels of public writing arranged in a hierarchy of sorts, it is important to see

how each manifests itself in reality. Starting with public writing in the broadest sense, a billboard

that reads “5,000 people become homeless in Rhode Island each year” satisfies the requirement

of the first type of public writing, because it makes a statement that is meant to inform or

enlighten the audience without addressing political or social issues. In this case, the statement is

purely factual, and does not spark disagreement. Clearly, a billboard with this type of message

may be discussed by its viewers, but the absence of tension in regards to theoretical or politicized

concepts keeps it in public writing’s broadest category.

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However, this billboard’s message becomes an ideological statement when it reads

“5,000 people become homeless in Rhode Island each year and they need our help to find

shelter.” The second clause—the claim that the homeless need help—is one that can be discussed

and disagreed with, but it fails to qualify as activist writing because it does not allow for readers

to take direct action. Though homelessness is a valid societal concern, a billboard that voices the

concern but does nothing to prompt change remains in the second layer of public writing.

Consider, then, a billboard that reads, “5,000 people become homeless in Rhode Island

each year and they need our help to find shelter. Support the efforts of Hopeful Homeless

Shelter.” Here, the public writing has finally become activist because it has not only presented a

claim (that 5,000 people become homeless in Rhode Island each year) but it has also chosen a

stance on the issue (by claiming that it is the job of the public to help people find shelter) and

thirdly, it claims that readers should respond to the issue by taking a specific action, namely,

supporting the efforts of a specific organization—Hopeful Homeless Shelter. If a reader responds

to the writing by donating to the shelter, serving as a volunteer in their soup kitchen, or

organizing a food drive to help the efforts of the shelter, the public writing has successfully

prompted social action that benefits the community that it was presented to.

This type of public writing is unique in that it is “prompted by surprising or on-going

problematic events and…attempts to…stimulate public discussion and/or promote solutions for

these new or ongoing problems of public concern” (Shamoon 3). Instead of making claims about

societal problems and allowing them to stand alone, activist writing “stimulates public

discussion” and “promotes solutions” to bring about visible change through the actions of

influenced audience members.

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Understandably, every piece of public writing includes certain audiences and excludes

others, despite its goal to be universally accessible. The beauty of public writing’s theoretically

endless audience is that people can become part of a targeted public by simply joining any group

of people and easily gaining access to the writing available there. The fact that the writing can be

consumed by any reader—not just by those who are interested in its content— makes the writing

public. With that said, the writing itself will have a different effect on different readers;

depending on the characteristics and backgrounds that each of them has before reading the text.

For example, it is to be expected that an impassioned article printed in Vegetarian Lifestyle

magazine protesting animal cruelty on veal farms will influence a vegetarian reader in a very

different way than if a veal farm owner picked up the magazine and read it. However, the fact

that the article is accessible to anyone—vegetarians, farm owners, and everyone in between—

makes it truly public. The idea is that at any given moment, any person can read the text,

regardless of its pertinence in their individual lives.

With that said, it is important to decipher between what is and is not public writing by

considering who the intended audience is. Documents that are written with specific individuals

or designated groups of readers in mind do not qualify as public writing because their audiences

are numbered. Hence, personal communication written from person-to-person via mail

(electronic or otherwise) is private writing along with journal entries, letters written to specific

government officials, and any document that is not readily accessible to the masses.

Differentiating public from private writing also takes into consideration the intent with which a

text was written. If the plan for a specific work does not involve being read by others, it is not

public. Even when writers do not intend for their work to be publically accessible, there are cases

when a private document becomes public regardless. In such situations, considering its intended
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readers and original purpose is of upmost importance in order to separate public and private


With this in mind, it is beneficial to consider how every “public” breaks down into

smaller groupings in the same way that nesting dolls begin as one large doll, but within that doll

are smaller dolls that continue to decrease in size the more the doll is taken apart. With this idea

in mind, every generalized group of “readers” is composed of smaller groups that are defined by

different characteristics. It may seem obvious, for example, that a text will influence a group of

women very differently than it will influence men. But, along a similar vein, a piece of public

writing read by a stay-at-home mother will have different results than when it is read by a driven

career women, despite the fact that they both fall into the same gender category. Each reader’s

individual background, personal convictions, and level of comprehension changes how they

respond to a text, which is evidence that every public—from the most general to the most

specific—automatically includes some people and excludes others. The goal, then, is to make

public writing as widespread as possible despite the tendency of groupings, in and of themselves,

to be in a constant state of fluctuation.

Public writing’s accessibility to the above-mentioned publics has changed drastically

over time due to the introduction and advancement in new technology. While writing itself

(involving words and symbols to create meaning) is a defining feature of public writing itself, the

ways by which people go about doing so is a seemingly endless store of possibilities. While

some people use flyers and posters to spread their ideas, others write on the internet or send their

ideas to newspapers and journals in hopes of having them published all over the community.

With such a broad range of possibilities—from blog posts or social networking websites to
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brochures, essays, and everything in between—each avenue by which writers publicize their

work has its share of limitations and indistinct boarders.

Due to these blurry limits, the success or influential power of public writing is oftentimes

a question of attention--whether or not readers recognize the presented issue as something worth

paying attention to. Understandably, a highly-televised pre-election speech delivered by Senator

Obama might gain more attention than a letter mailed by an unsatisfied Rhode Island citizen, but

the success rate of the texts themselves are best measured by their ability to perpetuate change

within their own means. If Senator Obama’s speech inspires republicans to change their minds

and vote for him, it is successful in bringing about change within society. However, if an

unsatisfied citizen writes a letter protesting lenient DUI laws in Rhode Island which leads to

eventual legal changes, the scope of the change is indeed different than that of a presidential

candidate’s speech, but it is still successful, based on the circumstance. With that said, attention

plays an important role in public writing as a process.

Though the ultimate goal of activist public writing is to bring about change in a society,

this does not happen automatically. Instead, writing a document, presenting it to the public, and

allowing the writing to bring about societal change takes time, a fact that makes public writing

more than an isolated event—it is an ongoing process. This process is one that Jurgan Habermas

and others call “publicity,” which “begins when an individual or a group is first moved to bring a

problematic situation before a public…[and] continues until the problem is resolved by being

acted on officially or legislatively” (Shamoon 15-6). Based on Habermas’s idea, public writing

begins when an individual or group decides to present an issue for readers, continues as they

decide how to best communicate their message, and ends when their work is discussed and acted

upon by readers. This process may involve steps like formulating ideas, researching, and raising
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awareness in order to spread the desired message to the public. Thus, the act of producing a

public document requires more than writing and waiting for instantaneous action by an audience.

Instead, it starts when a person is moved to share an issue and ends when the writing brings

about societal change over time.

Though this process varies in length and involves steps that are unique to the situation,

public writing itself remains a specific genre separated by levels ranging from broad to specific.

Though, at its core, it includes any writing meant for a limitless audience, it also involves

concepts based on ideological or political ideas and in its most active form, solicits an audience

response that contributes to societal change. Though there is great variation in form, purpose,

subject matter, and audience response, public writing has earned a prominent position in

democratic societies and serves as one of the many ways that people speak out, voice their

opinions, and aim to influence society for the better.

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Works Cited

Shamoon, Linda. Public Writing. np, nd. 2010: Print.