As an experienced conversationalist who has been wielding verbal words since toddlerhood, you easily move from one group of people to another adjusting your tone, your vocabulary, and your syntax accordingly. Often without thinking about it, you speak differently to your parents than you do to your teachers and differently from both groups when alone with your friends. You would not dream of using the same speech patterns in the locker room and the church sanctuary.
Most writers understand the concept of audience and why it is important to understand who their audience is when composing. Yet simply understanding the “who” of your audience is only the beginning for experienced writers. Effective writing, writing that works and delivers the intended message and effect, must fit within the discourse community it is destined to serve.
What is a discourse community? A discourse community is a group of people who “speak the same language” or in other words people who share an interest in certain topics, share a body of knowledge about those topics, and possess a common vocabulary for discussing those topics. Have you ever been around a group of people who shared a common passion that you knew nothing about? Perhaps it is a particular sport or activity, an artistic talent, or a job, but it is likely that without sharing that same passion you find it difficult to follow their conversation. That is because you are not a member of that discourse community. While they are speaking the same language as you — English — the context of the discourse community changes the way language is used as well as the content of that language.
You already belong to several discourse communities as a result of your family, ethnic, and religious background as well as your personal interests and activities. Students enter the larger discourse community of the instituion they attend as well as numerous smaller discourse communities within that institution including specific classrooms, clubs and organizations, and majors and programs.Workers enter the larger discourse community of their employer and depending on the size and focus of the institution may also enter smaller discourse communities within it as well. For example, in a hospital a nurse might belong to the discourse community of the hospital, the nursing staff, and the Emergency Department.
So why is it important for writers to consider discourse community?
Discourse is a conversation or more extended and more formal discussion of our ideas in either speech or writing. Discourse is important as this is how we communicate in the social world that we live and work in. The social groups we communicate within are called communities. A community is a group of people connected for a common goal or purpose. So then a discourse community is a social group that is involved in discourse.
When you participate in a discourse community you must understand what language is used, how language is used, what knowledge is generally possessed within the community, and what motivated and interests the community. Understanding discourse community extends beyond simply knowng your audience and purpose — it means understanding what words to use, how to frame those words into units (sentences, paragraphs, etc.), and what information is already possessed by community members.
Once you understand the concept of discourse community and begin to apply it to your writing you will immediately see a rise in the effectiveness of your writing. Then you can begin to make informed decisions about every aspect of your writing from the word choice, grammar, and sentence/paragraph construction to tone and level of formality.