Most blog posts are written by Marina Hurley. If you are interested in seeing a topic covered as either a blog post or a writing guide, please let us know. Guest authors are invited to submit educational-based blogs relating to science writing and research. Please email info@writingclearscience.com.au for further information.


The essentials of science writing: identify your target audience


Decide who you are writing for 

When we write, we write about something (the topic) in a certain format (the document type) for a reader or group of readers (the audience). Deciding what we are writing about and what type of document to prepare is usually straightforward for most writers but deciding who we are writing for is not a step that is always considered, let alone completed or completed carefully. To a certain degree, the audience of a document is determined by the type of document and the subject matter but unless researchers and other science writers have a background in marketing, the concept of identifying and catering for a target audience might not be a high priority.

What is your focus? 

A document is not simply a receptacle for words, it is a tool of communication that should perform a service for readers. Thinking about who will read our document, or what they might want from our document, is something that writers might avoid if they are author-focused or project-focused. Author-focused writers have discoveries, data, knowledge and information that they need to share and primarily concentrate on getting their document published. Project-focused writers key aim is to satisfy project, organisation, company or client objectives by documenting the outcomes of a project or series of projects. Audience-focused writers design their document primarily for the reader, while still satisfying their own needs and the needs of project objectives, clients and stake-holders.

Unless catering to a target audience is a central objective, your document may lack some of the fundamentals of good document design. Spending the time deciding what you want to do for your audience, rather than simply delivering information, will help you fine-tune the content and the design of your document. Common writing problems often reflect that a writer has not thoroughly considered who their audience is, for example:

- providing too much, or not enough, detail or background information

- using the wrong language or unfamiliar terminology

- assuming the audience’s level of interest in, or understanding of, the topic

In my experience, one of the biggest mistakes in science writing is to assume your audience knows your topic nearly as well as you do. Authors of most research papers can safely make this assumption and purposely have a narrow, specialised audience. Yet even then, research writers still regularly leave out important background information and project details that are necessary for the reader to understand what they are doing and why.  

It is easy to fall into the trap of writing to simply deliver information if you are a solo writer, if you are inexperienced or if you don’t get regular feedback on your writing. If you do get regular feedback, it might not be enough if you only get feedback from people who know your topic well; your colleagues or supervisors may ensure you write a scientifically-accurate document but they may not realise that what you’ve written is not easy to read as they are so familiar with your topic.

There are different types of audiences to consider

An audience is a collective group of readers and for most purposes we need to think about our readers as a group and generalise about what qualities they have. For any document there may be three broad types of audience: your target audience, your secondary audience and your peripheral audience (see diagram using an ecology research paper as an example). Your target audience are the group of readers that you want to read your document or you expect will want to read your document. These are the people you are designing your document for. They should understand everything you tell them. Some examples are:  research scientists writing peer-reviewed papers for their peers, students writing assignments for their lecturers, or consultants writing reports for clients. If there are some people you think might read your document but will not be able to understand everything, then they should not be considered part of your target audience. These people are part of your secondary audience.

Your secondary audience are those people who still want, or need, to read your document but may have different education backgrounds or work within a different discipline to your target audience. For example, the secondary audience of an ecology research paper might be scientists from other disciplines, or other people interested in your topic or your project outcomes; for example, land managers, farmers, conservationists, journalists, science educators or students. You cannot explain everything for your secondary audience but you can define your key terms and ensure your main aim and findings are abundantly clear. The third group are your peripheral audience who will directly or indirectly benefit and learn about your work but will not read your document themselves; they will find about it through the secondary or target audience of your document. Because your peripheral audience won’t be reading your document, it is crucial for you to ensure your key messages are abundantly clear so they are not misinterpreted.

How to identify your target audience

Decide what group of readers you want to target with your document: your target audience. Consider the following:

  • Who will want to read your document? Who will be interested in your topic and key findings?
  • What is their level of education, expertise and background?
  • Will they be able to understand all parts of your document? If not, include sufficient detail and explanation to ensure that they do.
  • Why will they be interested in reading your document? What reasons do they have for reading your document?
  • What people need to read your document? If they are not already interested, how do you attract them?
  • What task(s) will your document perform for them?
  • How they will find out about your document?
  • How will they access your document?

The essentials of science writing: plan before you write

Writing is a complex activity that needs planning

The planning process prior to science writing is often ad-hoc and focused upon developing content. But there are important decisions that need to be made before you start writing if you want to produce a high-quality document, especially decisions relating to document design and audience identification. If your planning is limited to jotting down a title and a few key points before you start, that is not enough. Careful planning involves thorough decision-making which takes time, even though it might be tempting to cut corners and skip the planning process all together.

An effective plan will help you to be an efficient writer

Not only should planning decisions be made before you start writing, they need to be written into a coherent, separate document plan. This document plan can then be referred to as you write your proposed document.

Getting started is one of the most difficult obstacles to successful writing. If you begin your writing with an effective plan, not only will it help you to get started, it will help you stay on track. A lack of planning can lead to inefficient writing in the early stages; for example, writing too much detail in some sections and not enough in others or spending too much time writing about an idea that gets cut out later. A clear plan will allow yourself sufficient time to think about what you want to write and reduce the risk of producing a document that is difficult to read and understand.

Preparing a written plan may significantly reduce time spent rewriting and redrafting when working with co-authors or if senior staff need to approve your drafts. There is nothing worse than spending hours writing and perfecting your thinking on a topic, only to have this work cast aside because your manager later decides to change the document’s structure or purpose. Once a written plan is agreed to, any changes can be monitored and implemented through regular reviews and updates, if necessary.

Traditionally, document plans focus upon content

Document plans are not new but usually focus upon content preparation (e.g. report templates) and advise the author what to write to satisfy a project’s purpose and objectives. However, an effective document plan should also outline how you are going to manage each stage of the writing process. At different stages of the writing process many people simply think about what needs to be done and jot down tasks on a to-do list or in project management software. Decisions about tasks that involve writing with others are often made through discussions, emails and project management software, while sometimes the writing process might not be managed at all. Rarely are these decisions written down as a separate plan before work commences on the proposed document.

What should be included in a document plan?

A document plan should include all information relating to the design, preparation and production activities needed for you to successfully complete your document. I refer to this type of plan as a Document Preparation Plan that addresses key aspects of document production (Part 1) and document design (Part 2). As with any plan, you should not expect this plan to be perfect as it will not be possible to predict exactly what will be written or exactly what is needed to manage all writing-related tasks. A Document Preparation Plan should be short and succinct and be updated if necessary, depending upon the size of the writing project and whether co-authors are involved.

Part One. Document production

The first part of the planning process involves documenting all tasks that need to be managed in order to successfully complete a high-quality document. It can include how and when these tasks will be completed.

Factors to include:

  1. outlining your purpose (reasons) for writing
  2. identifying your target audience
  3. listing all non-writing activities needed to complete the document and setting appropriate deadlines for each activity
  4. outlining all resources needed for all writing and non-writing activities  

Part Two. Summary of document content & structure

This is the part of a document plan that most writers complete as the first stage of the writing process, but not always satisfactorily; many writers postpone working out the central thrust of their document until the final stages of writing. However, it is crucial to decide what key messages you want to cover before you start writing including your aim or problem statement and key findings. It is ok to change your mind about these key messages as your progress through your writing, but completing this first step in the content planning process gives you a firm framework on which to build your story.

Factors to include:

  1. Draft title and subtitle
  2. The aim and problem statement
  3. Summary of methods & results
  4. Implications of the results and general conclusion(s)
  5. Document type (i.e. science report) & length
  6. Type and number of visual aids (i.e. graphs, tables, diagrams)

Download the Document Preparation Plan (checklist)

To help you design a document preparation plan to suit your topic, I have developed a Document Preparation Plan (checklist) which is available here as a free download (pdf) 

© Marina Hurley 2018

FURTHER READING

  1. 8 steps to writing your first draft
  2. Two ways to be an inefficient writer
  3. Work-procrastination: important stuff that keeps us from writing

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter to keep informed about our latest blogs and writing workshops.


The essentials of science writing: What is science writing?

What is science writing?

At its simplest definition, science writing is writing about science. What is central to all types of science writing is that the topic under discussion is a scientific topic; that is, information that has been gathered using accepted scientific methods.

Science writing takes different forms, depending upon the purpose of the author and who the document is designed for. Science writing can create a thesis, a research paper, a report, a blog, magazine article, fact sheet or video script. A scientist publishing a research paper will write for their peers, a journalist writing for a popular science magazine will write for people who are fascinated by science and technology while a technician writing a report may write for other technicians who need to know about a new methodology. The type of terminology used by science writers will depend upon the level of knowledge, education and expertise of the target audience. Scientific terms are only considered jargon if they are used for the wrong audience. Therefore, it is essential that science writers correctly identify their target audience when designing their document.

If it’s not written, peer-reviewed and published, it’s not science

Writing is the foundation of science. Ideas start with a thought, but we can’t walk on Mars or cure Alzheimer’s without writing about it first. All scientists should write and publish their work, otherwise their work will not be considered science; If it’s not written, peer-reviewed and published, it’s not science. New facts, phenomena, dilemmas, hypotheses, theories or ideas all must be written, peer-reviewed and published before they can be considered part of the scientific literature. Anyone can do science and get it published, as long as the methods, analysis and scientific interpretations are validated by peer-review.

Good scientists need to write well and often. For a project to become science knowledge, not only does it need to be written and published (hopefully, in an interesting way), science writing must be read, understood, acknowledged and acted upon.

Who can write about science?

Anyone can write about science, irrespective of background or qualifications, as long the concepts developed and discussed are backed up with solid science and cited accordingly (peer-reviewed, published evidence).

Not all research produces solid science and not all published science is perfect. If the science used to back up a story is not solid, then the language used must reflect that degree of uncertainty. Cautionary language should be used to describe studies that are preliminary, explorative or produce inconclusive or weak results; these include studies that are short or have few samples, studies that have only been repeated a few times, or studies that are based upon assumptions, vague premises or broad hypotheses. Assertive and positive language should be used when studies have been widely validated and when scientific principles are supported by strong evidence. Too often the conclusions made by one small study are taken up by professional and social media with the cautionary language removed.

Science needs to be written

We write about science to inform. We write about science so that others can learn from our achievements. We write about science so that others can repeat what we’ve done, use our results to inform their own research or take the next step and create something new. We write about science to benefit of our community and our environment. We write about science because it is fascinating, mystifying, mind-boggling, intriguing, surprising and sometimes scary.

Science needs to be written clearly

Science writers often need to convince their audience to change their thinking or behaviour. This requires even greater efforts to write clearly and to write well. If you have a good argument and are unable to write it well, your reader will be lost. If your argument is poorly structured or if your writing style is verbose, you don’t stand a chance to engage your audience. If you have a well-written argument, your reader may not necessarily agree with you, but hopefully they will spend their valuable reading time thinking about your argument, rather than trying to work out what you are trying to say.

© Marina Hurley 2018

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

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Further reading


6 essential features of a clear and compelling grant application

6 essential features of a clear and compelling grant application

Grant applications are usually competitive with multiple applicants applying for the same funding source. A limited pool of money will be available and grant reviewers have to decide which projects are most likely to produce a successful outcome. Ensuring that your grant application is clear and compelling can give you an edge over the competition.

1. Hook the reader from the beginning

When grant applications are reviewed, they often go through an early triage process to rank the applications, with some applications removed from further consideration early on in the review process. Ensuring that your application is clear and compelling from the start may encourage the reviewer to read on and seriously consider the application.

A catchy and concise title that engages the reader is an important first step. Titles should be short, free of jargon and abbreviations and understandable to the lay person.

If the application guidelines allow, first present a brief overview that neatly encapsulates the entire application. Include a clear summary of the background to your topic, a statement of the problem and why it is important, followed by a brief statement of why your project is the most obvious way to solve the problem. Clear, simple diagrams on the first page that visually describe the problem can be helpful to the reader.

2. Explain the relevance of your project

Grant agencies usually clearly outline their scope; this is a description of the type of grants and areas of research they will fund. You need to state how your project fits within the agency’s goals at the beginning of the application.

Once you have defined the problem that your project will solve, the next step is to convince the reader that the problem is important and urgent. How common is it? How many people does it affect? What could happen if this problem isn’t solved soon? What does this problem cost the government, the tax payer and the community? Can the costs of this unaddressed problem be given an estimated dollar figure? Use statistics to back up your claims and cite government documents or published literature wherever possible.

3. Tell a story

The most compelling grant applications tell stories that make the reviewer want to find out how they finish (and they will want to give you money to see how it ends). Ensure that the reader has all the information presented to them in a logical order, so that they can easily follow the story. Explain each concept before moving onto the next and make sure there are no gaps that will leave the reader confused. Don’t assume that your reader is familiar with the nuances of your project.

Outline the big picture: begin with an introduction to the broad topic area that over-arches your project. Then narrow your focus to discuss the problem that your project will address. Simply describing a problem and stating that ‘it is important’ is not sufficient. Provide the reader with sufficient background information so they can easily understand why this issue is so important. Never assume your grant reviewer has in-depth knowledge of your topic. Explain all aspects of the problem and then discuss what is not known, so that the reader has an understanding of what will be needed to solve it.

Gradually weave your research intentions into the story, to show how it fits in. What prior knowledge or relevant expertise do you have? Explain all aspects of the problem and your role in the solution, so the reader can easily see what your project will do and how you aim to solve the problem.

4. Show why you are the best person for the project

Convince the reviewer that you are the best person or team to execute a successful project. What sets you apart from others that have worked in this area? What have you successfully completed in this area? What unique resources or special skills do you have?

Give examples of your previous work or publications where possible. If the project involves developing new skills or techniques, the grant application should explain how you have been successful in developing other skills or techniques in the past.

5. Demonstrate that the project is feasible

The reader should be left with absolute confidence that you can get the work done on time and on budget. Phrases such as “…we have already established…”, “…now that we have found x, we will investigate y” convey momentum and establish feasibility. The grant should drive home the message that the only thing stopping you from completing the project is lack of money.

At the end of the story, tell the reader what will happen next if it is funded. State the expected outcomes of your project. However, if listing additional benefits of the project, ensure that they don’t cloud the original aim. What you are likely to achieve and how this project will solve the problem should be abundantly clear.

6. Use clear and concise language

Clear and concise language is more engaging and compelling than writing that is dry and long-winded. Too many abbreviations can make the text difficult to read, so try to find a balance between readability and any word limits. Defining abbreviations at the beginning of the document and using bold text makes it easier for the reader to revisit the abbreviation if needed.

Avoid jargon (undefined terminology) and overly-complicated language. Define key terms when first mentioned and avoid using different terms for the same thing. Ensure that each sentence is clearly constructed. A good rule of thumb is to ask a colleague or friend to read the application and highlight any sentences that they had to read more than twice.

Thoroughly re-read and revise the application, gradually simplifying the language as you rewrite and edit, without comprising the integrity of your story. Ask an independent person to read the near-final draft to look for spelling or grammatical errors that could interfere with clarity and quality.

© Liza O’Donnell & Marina Hurley 2017

Further reading

Any suggestions or comments please email info@writingclearscience.com.au 

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Ten Stages of the PhD Journey: Good Advice from Many Experts

 

Ten Stages of the PhD Journey: Good Advice from Many Experts

Designing, executing and writing up a PhD study takes a large chunk of your time and energy. Here is an overview of each stage of the process along with a list of excellent articles that will help you with different parts of your PhD journey. Some of the advice offered here may be specific to a discipline, country or university, or is heavily dependent upon one person’s experience. Nevertheless, you are likely to find most of this advice and instruction helpful in some way.

 1. What do you hope to achieve by completing a PhD?

It is important for you to seriously consider why you are undertaking a PhD and what you hope to achieve by completing a PhD

*   9 things you should consider before embarking on a PhD by Andy Greenspon

*   Familiarise yourself with the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research

*   A successful PhD student will be expected to possess key research skills and knowledge as listed here: Research degree graduate qualities by the University of South Australia

 2. Writing a Research Proposal

You might be offered a PhD project where the research proposal is already planned or you might need to devise a research proposal yourself, either before or after you have chosen a supervisor.

*   How to write a research proposal for a strong PhD application by the University of Sydney

 3. Choosing a PhD supervisor

Some students have one key supervisor, while it is not unusual for some students to have three or four. It is important to remember that your supervisor may have many students under their direction, so their time may be strictly limited. At Monash University, research supervisors supervise different numbers of students according to their accreditation, with Level 3 Accreditation supervising up to 25 graduate research students.

*   Choosing a PhD supervisor by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

*   You and your supervisors by the University of South Australia

 4. Setting up a research budget

An essential project management skill when conducting research is the ability to effectively design and manage research budgets. If you need to request finances through a grant application, ensure you thoroughly investigate the necessary guidelines.

*   Budget Guidelines for Research Support Grants by the NHMRC.

*   How to make a simple research budget by Jonathan O’Donnell

*   6 steps to drafting a grant application Liza O’Donnell & Marina Hurley

 5. How to find completed PhD theses

It is always a good idea to check other PhD theses that are similar to your topic, have been completed recently and have been produced by your university department. You can gain a wealth of ideas about structure, size and overall thesis design.

*   How to find a thesis by Macquarie University

*   Finding Australian theses by the Council of Australian University Librarians

And on this page, there are other really useful inks:

 6. How to structure and format your thesis

Exactly how to structure and format your thesis will vary greatly depending upon your department, your university and your discipline. Always refer to your university’s guidelines for thesis format requirements. For example:

*   Style and format by the University of Western Australia

*   Thesis format requirements by the University of Queensland

*   Thesis structure by the University of New South Wales

 7. Writing a thesis with submitted papers

Increasingly, students are allowed, or even required, to submit a large proportion of their thesis as published papers. Not every PhD project can be easily written up as separate papers; however, take a look at recently submitted theses to see how people have done this.

*   What is a ‘thesis by publication’? by the University of Sydney

*   Six Misconceptions about the Three-Paper Route by PhD Life

 8. How to write a literature review

Reviewing the literature is important to assist your knowledge and understanding of your topic. Writing good literature reviews is crucial to show your examiners how well you know the literature. It is a common requirement that you write a separate chapter as a stand-alone literature review. However, for those theses that are predominantly composed of complete published papers, there might not be a requirement for a separate review section.

*   How do I write a literature review? by the University of Sydney

*   Writing a publishable literature review paper – four options by Pat Thomson

 9. Submitting your thesis

The process of submitting your thesis may include preparing additional tasks and preparation of paperwork (i.e. the Originality Statement).

*   Thesis Submission by UNSW

*   Submitting a thesis by the Australian National University

 10. The examination process

Usually there are three examiners. However, the process of thesis examination will vary widely according to discipline and university. Broadly speaking, your examiners will recommend that your thesis be accepted without alteration, accepted with minor alteration, accepted providing major changes are made or rejected. Usually your supervisor will choose who your examiners are and you may have the opportunity to choose one of your examiners.

*   HDR Thesis Submission and Examination Procedure by James Cook University

*   Examination Process by Curtin University

An oral examination for a PhD is not common in Australia universities but are sometimes required depending upon university, discipline or if there is a particular aspect of your thesis that requires clarification

*   Guidelines for the oral defence of the thesis by the University of South Australia

If there are any problems…

If things go drastically wrong at any time, it is essential that you seek assistance as early as possible. There are people within your university administration who are there to help you. To help dealing with problems, document any issues as they arise. It is essential for you to have excellent time-management and record-keeping skills.

*   Resolving problems by the University of Melbourne

*   Grievances, Complaints and Problems During Candidature by the University of Adelaide

*   Resolving problems by Griffith University

And remember…

*   Be aware of, and employ, sound project management skills including risk management protocols to identify alternative actions in unforeseen circumstances.

*   Keep records and extra copies of everything: for example, data, thesis drafts, email, meeting agendas, fieldwork notes. Ensure you have excellent electronic version control of your documents and extra backups of all your data and work.

*   Ensure you develop and maintain a support network of friends and colleagues who may give important advice and help you deal with any obstacles.

*   Get plenty of exercise, rest and sleep.

© Marina Hurley 2017

Further reading:

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