Category Archives: Writing research reports

How to structure bullet point lists

What are bullet point lists?

When lists are presented with one list item per line, following an indented marker or symbol. they are commonly referred to as ‘bullet points’ or ‘bulleted lists’. Bullet point lists are widely used in science report writing but are rarely used in peer-reviewed journal articles (primarily due to save space).

What is the purpose of bullet points lists?

Bullet point lists are generally used for unnumbered and unordered lists and allow information to stand out separately from paragraphs and other surrounding text. Well-designed bullet points help attract the reader's attention when skimming a document and help them to quickly absorb multiple subtopics.

Making sure that bullet points are structured correctly also helps writers to clarify their thinking. Bullet point lists avoid the need to force a sentence or paragraph to contain lengthy and unwieldy lists. They allow the writer to be more succinct as the repetition needed to link connected sentences within a paragraph can be removed. They can also help to reduce the word count if the list is composed of simple phrases or sentence fragments rather than complete sentences.

The problems with the use of bullet point lists

Many writers are unsure how to structure bullet point lists and use them incorrectly. Some writers use paragraphs when they could have used bullet points and some overuse bullet points instead of writing paragraphs. Some writers haphazardly throw all types of information into bullet points, making them difficult to read. Therefore, guidelines are necessary.

When and how should bullet point lists be used?

There are different ways to structure bullet points. However, ensuring consistency and clarity of meaning is crucial. Two common questions I’m asked are, “Should bullet points be capitalised?’ and “Should bullet points be followed with commas or semi-colons?” My answer to both is, that it depends on what you are writing and how your structure your introductory elements and list items. An introductory element is the use of a phrase, sentence fragment or complete sentence to introduce the bullet point list.

1. Bullet point lists are introduced with a phrase, a sentence fragment or a complete sentence (introductory element). 

The introductory element is usually followed by a colon (See Example 1).

Example 1

The following is a brief overview of:

- my understanding about the broad types of software tools on offer.

- how different pricing models influence my choice of tools.

- the current software tools I regularly use for writing, teaching and managing my training consultancy.

- what to keep in mind when searching for good software tools.

(from ‘FAQ: What software tools do I use for writing and teaching?’)

2. Each list member must logically complete the meaning conveyed in the introductory element.

As Example 1 is introduced with a sentence fragment (‘The following is a brief overview of:’) each list item must form a grammatically-correct complete sentence when combined with it. For example, the second list item would be read as: “The following is a brief overview of how different pricing models influence my choice of tools.” This is why the first word of each list item is not capitalised and why full stops are used at the end of each list item.

It is very common for writers to avoid this important guideline and not check to see if each list item logically follows on from the introductory element. An incorrect way to represent the information in Example 1 would be as follows:

Hypothetical (incorrect) Example 2

The following is a brief overview of:

- my understanding about the broad types of software tools on offer.

- how different pricing models influence my choice of tools.

- Includes a current list of software tools I regularly use for writing, teaching and managing my training consultancy.

- Also some tips to keep in mind when searching for the good software tools.

The last two list items, although still relating to the topic, do not follow on from the introductory element. For example, the 3rd list item would read, “The following is a brief overview of Include a current list of software tools I regularly use for writing, teaching and managing my training consultancy.This does not make sense.

3. If an introductory element stands alone as a heading, it doesn’t need any punctuation (see Example 3 below). 

Nevertheless, in this example you could still place a colon after the introductory element.

Example 3


- Plans are not meant to be perfect but act as a guide to your thinking and a framework to further develop the project you are working on.

- Keep all versions of your plans for future reference or to use as templates for future projects.

- Ask colleagues for feedback on your plans as well as your document drafts.

 (from ‘The essentials of science writing: plan before you write’ )

4. If the bullet points are composed of complete sentences, they should be each be treated as a normal sentence with capitalisation and terminal punctuation (e.g. full stop, question mark) (see Example 3 above).

5. Consistency is crucial:

- Use the same symbol or marker for your bullet points throughout your document.

- Although you may have different types (structures) of bullet point lists within the same document, all list items within a bullet point list should be the same format: all phrases, all sentence fragments or all complete sentences.

This is another reason why Example 3 is incorrect as the 3rd point is a complete sentence, while the 4th point is a sentence fragment and both are dissimilar in structure to the first two points.

6. Bullet point lists items that are phrases or sentence fragments need no punctuation (see Example 4 below).


Example 4

Common writing problems often reflect that a writer has not thoroughly considered who their audience is, or what they need. This can cause the following problems:

- providing too much (or not enough) detail or background information

- providing too much detail on unrelated sub-topics or on a well-known topic

- using the wrong language or unfamiliar terminology

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

(from How to identify your target audience,)

7. Ensure that your list items are distinct from each other (compare examples 5 & 6).

Example 5

An example of distinct list items:

I agreed to the following decisions:

- the start date of the project.

- that the consultation committee have a maximum of five registered members.

- the due date of the first stage of the report.

Example 6

An example of indistinct list items:

The following is a brief overview of:

- my understanding about the broad types of software tools on offer.

- how different pricing models influence my choice of tools.

- how different pricing models influence the way I research software tools.

In this example, the 3rd list item is closely related to the 2nd list item, so I would either combine them all leave point 3 out.

8. The list items can be presented in any order. If they must be presented in a certain order, they should be numbered and considered a ‘numbered list’ and not a bullet point list (See example 7).

Example 7 

Example of a numbered list

Steps to complete your enrolment:

  1. Read the terms and conditions.
  2. Download and complete the application form
  3. Email the application form to
  4. Follow instructions in enrolment notification email.

9. Use commas or semi-colons at the end of each list item if you are presenting a list as though it was part of an entire sentence (see Examples 8 and 9). 

Hypothetical Example 8 (with commas)

The site contained the following species:

- Eucalyptus saligna,

- Eucalyptus siderophloia,

- Eucalyptus oreades and

- Eucalyptus regens.

As a complete sentence this would be written as “The site contained the following species: Eucalyptus saligna, Eucalyptus siderophloia, Eucalyptus oreades and Eucalyptus regens.”

This type of bullet point list could also make a complicated list easier to read than if it was written in a sentence (see Example 8).

Hypothetical Example 9 (with semi-colons)

The site contained the following species:

- Acacia daviesioides (over 3 dozen seedlings);

- Acacia glaucoptera (3 shrubs);

- Acacia incurve (over 1000 small to medium shrubs);

- Eucalyptus saligna (over 200 seedlings);

- Eucalyptus siderophloia (one large tree and 3 saplings);

- Eucalyptus oreades (six saplings) and

- Eucalyptus regens (over 300 trees).

As a complete sentence this example would be written as “The site contained the following species: Acacia daviesioides (over 3 dozen seedlings); Acacia glaucoptera (3 shrubs); Acacia incurve (over 1000 small to medium shrubs); Eucalyptus saligna (over 200 seedlings); Eucalyptus siderophloia (one large tree and 3 saplings); Eucalyptus oreades (six saplings) and Eucalyptus regens (over 300 trees).

If you find you are writing these types of sentences or bullet point lists, depending on the type of document you are writing, it might be better to use tables instead.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2021

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When to cite and when not to

What information should be cited? Where do I place the citation in a sentence? These two questions are commonly asked during my writing workshops and online courses. Other problems I regularly see are too many citations to support a piece of information or statements of fact that should be supported by a citation. This blogpost reviews the basic concepts of citation and discusses the importance of always citing your sources.

What is a citation?

Authors of scientific documents use citation to indicate when information comes from another source: who wrote (or produced) the information being discussed and when it was published.

The standard method of citation is to insert in-text citations directly before, or after, the information that is attributed to another source or author. These citations are then listed at the end of the document within either a bibliography or reference list. A reference list includes only the references that are cited, whereas a bibliography is both a list of the references cited and additional references used when researching and writing the document.

There are many different referencing styles, including the Harvard style which is commonly used in science publications. The Author – Date (Harvard) in-text citation is where the authors surnames and dates of publication are written within brackets at the end of a sentence or phrase. For example. “Aquatic air breathers periodically break the water surface to gulp air but never leave water (Gonzales et al. 2006).” (Magellan 2016, p 452)

If there is more than one citation for a particular statement, the citations are separated by semicolons. For example: “The conflicting requirements for aquatic and terrestrial life are perhaps most pronounced in air-breathing fishes (Sayer & Davenport 1991; Graham 1997; Sayer 2005).” (Magellan 2016, p 452). This example also demonstrates the convention of ordering citations from earliest year published (1991) to latest year published (2005). If two publications were cited from the same year, then the order of citation would be in alphabetical order.

Where should in-text citation be placed?

I am often asked whether to place the citation at the end of the sentence, in brackets, or at the beginning, forming part of the sentence.

Often the citation is made after a statement of fact. If there are three statements within a sentence, there will be three separate citations lists within that sentence; An example from Magellan (2016, p 452), “Amphibious animals are adapted for both aquatic and terrestrial habitats and divide their lives periodically (e.g. Yeomans 1995; Dall’Antonia & Sinsch 2001) or ontogenetically (e.g. Martin et al. 2004; Blob et al. 2007) between water and land (Sayer & Davenport 1991; Sayer 2005).”

Alternatively, the authors of a publication can appear in the beginning of a sentence when it is used as the subject of the sentence, while the date of publication is written in brackets. In this case, the previous citation example of Gonzales et al. 2006 by Magellan 2016 could be rewritten as ‘Gonzales et al. (2006) found that aquatic air breathers periodically break the water surface to gulp air but never leave water’. However, this type of citation increases the length of the sentence as the verb phrase ‘found that’ needs to be added.

As a general guide, if you use the findings of a study to develop your reasoning, it is easiest and more concise to place the citation at the end of the sentence. That way you can easily list more than one study as a list of citations in brackets, as in the example above. However, if you are discussing a particular study over more than one sentence, it is easier for the reader if you first introduce the authors as the subject of the sentence.
Irrespective of where the citation is placed, hyperlinking can used with electronic publications to link a quote or citation directly to the document being cited, as with the Fensham et. al (2017) paper cited below.

Ideas, quotes and paraphrasing should be cited

You must include a citation if you quote, paraphrase or summarise someone else’s information or ideas. Quoting is writing the exact words used by another author and enclosing the text in double quotation marks; for example: Fensham et. al (2017) concluded that “The findings of the current study support the importance of rainfall variability as the major influence on the demography of E. melanophloia, the dominant tree in a semi-arid savanna” (p. 780). The page number where the quotation appeared should always be included.

Paraphrasing is rewriting someone else’s writing using your own choice of words; for example, I would both summarise and paraphrase this previous quote as, ‘Fensham et. al (2017) concluded that rainfall variability is the major factor influencing the demography of E. Melanophloia.’ or ‘The demography of E. melanophloia is most strongly influenced by rainfall variability’.’ (Fensham et. al 2017).

 When using quotation marks, whether you use single or double quotation marks, be sure that you are consistent. Note that I used single quotes here to distinguish my wording and double quotes for the direct quotation.

Why do we cite?

The main reasons we cite is to clearly distinguish our work from others and so the source of information can be located and verified. Citation also honours the work or intellectual property of the author. Researchers most often cite other studies when developing their reasoning for their own studies, when comparing their work with other researchers and to indicate when authors reach similar or dissimilar conclusions. In this way, the citation process maintains and further develops the scientific discourse and shows how authors place their work within the published scientific literature.

What information can be cited?

It is a good idea to only cite information that has been published or made publicly available. Be cautious about referencing information from documents that are not publicly available or have not been peer-reviewed.

Unpublished research is referred to as grey literature. Grey literature is defined as “…research that has not been published commercially and is therefore not necessarily searchable via the standard databases and search engines. Much grey literature is of high quality and can be an excellent source of up to date research in certain subject areas. Examples of grey literature: government reports, conference proceedings, theses / dissertations, research reports, maps, policy statements, clinical trials, technical standards, interviews and newsletters” (UNSW 2018).

If it is necessary to cite unpublished information, the integrity of this information may come into question if no other sources are provided. Be cautious about generating conclusions or inferences solely on the basis of unpublished information.

How to cite different types of publications

Most Australian university library websites will list guides to different referencing styles; for example, Queensland University and Victoria University have in-depth guides on different referencing styles and how to cite and reference different types of publications. Also refer to Colin Neville’s book, The Complete Guide to Referencing and Avoiding Plagiarism (2016) for an in-depth guide on how to reference and cite a wide range of published material including books, papers, newspaper articles and audio-visual material.

What doesn’t need to be cited     

Information that is commonly known to be true is not cited. Common knowledge is information that is widely accepted as being true and does not need to be cited. However, what is common knowledge depends upon the knowledge of the audience: what is commonly known to some groups of people would not necessarily be commonly known by another group of people.

As readers, we trust that the author’s knowledge of what is commonly known, is true. For example, the quote from Fensham (see above) included an unreferenced statement that E. melanophloia is a dominant tree in a semi-arid savanna (Fensham et al. 2017, p. 780). I assume that this statement is common knowledge as it was uncited. Another example is that it is common knowledge to entomologists that (most) beetles have only one pair of flying wings, with the second pair of wings evolved to form protective covers to the flying wings. This fact would not need to be cited in entomology publications, not only because it is commonly known, but because it is easy enough to find out.

Avoid inadvertent plagiarism

Remember that unreferenced statements might be considered plagiarism. If you continually make unreferenced statements, you can mislead the reader into thinking that your un-cited information is either common knowledge or that you generated this information yourself.

Publications cited
- Magellan, K. (2016) Amphibious adaptations in a newly recognized amphibious fish: Terrestrial locomotion and the influences of body size and temperature. Austral Ecology 41,452-460
- Fensham, R. J., Freeman, M. E., Laffineur, B., Macdermott, H., Prior, L. D., & Werner, P. A. (2017). Variable rainfall has a greater effect than fire on the demography of the dominant tree in a semi-arid Eucalyptus savanna. Austral Ecology, 42(7), 772– 782
- Gonzales T. T., Katoh M. & Ishimatsu A. (2006) Air breathing of aquatic burrow-dwelling eel goby, Odontamblyopus lacepedii (Gobiidae: Amblyopinae). J. Exp. Biol. 209, 1085–92.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2021

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What is the difference between a good idea and a theory?

Some terms used to discuss and describe science are often used interchangeably which can cause confusion: for example, terms such as fact, hypothesis, theory, knowledge, information, results and findings. In this writing guide, I define some commonly-used terms used to describe science, while also explaining how science information is produced. 

I need to first acknowledge that numerous philosophers and have spent many years, even entire lifetimes, debating and discussing the precise meaning of some of these terms. So I encourage you to read some of the books by important science authors and philosophers including Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Hawking to develop a solid understanding of science philosophy and the current developments in science. Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything is also an excellent coverage of science suitable for a wide audience.

Knowledge versus information

The term knowledge is often used instead of information. However, science knowledge is what people gain or learn through absorbing science information or through doing their own research. Science information is a collection of facts that is based upon evidence which is the result of peer-reviewed or peer-verified research.

The degree to which science information is considered true and correct will vary according to when the research was published, how large or lengthy the study was and the amount of published evidence that supports this information. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of information that may be considered true but is yet to be scientifically tested; for example, some home remedies for illnesses.

Facts, assumptions and opinions

A scientific statement of fact is an explanation of a phenomenon or something that is generally held to be true and can be proved by evidence. Facts can later be disproved, as can hypotheses and theories. Communicating information as a judgement or a statement of fact, but without providing proof that it is true, is expressing an assumption, while believing that something is true based upon little or incomplete evidence is forming an opinion.

Scientific opinions are generated from science knowledge, and may or may not be true, but they are important for developing new ideas, new hypotheses and new science. Scientific opinions and ideas need to be developed into hypotheses or problems that can be tested and supported (or rejected) by research.

What should be cited

Strictly speaking, all science information that is not common knowledge should be cited; that is, the source of the information should be presented so that the reader can verify that the information is supported by evidence. Where relevant, opinions should also be acknowledged, otherwise, it may be difficult for a reader to understand the difference between a scientific opinion and an uncited statement of fact (common knowledge).

Common knowledge is what would be generally be accepted as being true without question by a large proportion of a group of people familiar with a certain topic. What is accepted as common knowledge of a topic will depend upon the background, knowledge and experience of the reader.

Results versus findings

The science information produced by a study and published in a research paper is also known as the study’s findings. Collectively, both the Results and the Discussion parts of a research paper represent the authors findings. The Results present the data or observations of the study and the Discussion presents the author’s interpretations that explain what these results mean in relation to the scientific problem under investigation.

Traditionally, the format of the research paper is to distinctly separate the Results and Discussion sections so that the bare measurements of the results are not mixed in with, and made indistinguishable from, the author’s discussion or interpretations of their results. As different people may interpret the same data differently, it was (and still is) considered important to allow the reader to clearly see the results in isolation.  However, it may be difficult to separate results and discussion with some types of projects and within some disciplines.

Scientific interpretations are based upon the author’s knowledge, which is gained through their experience, through their reading and through their analytical (inductive and deductive) skills. If these scientific interpretations are accepted by peer-review and published, they may then be considered scientific facts. If other authors disagree with the interpretations in a published paper, they are expected to publish their own papers accordingly and a scientific debate may ensue. Individual interpretations will develop into a scientific consensus when similar studies produce similar results and different authors develop similar conclusions.

Similarly, a theory is supported by consensus. A theory describes the behaviour or activity of a phenomenon or phenomena. It is a statement supported by accepted hypotheses and empirical evidence. A hypothesis is a statement that describes the properties or behaviour of an object or phenomena. A hypothesis is either supported or rejected based upon the evidence developed from testing the hypothesis. A specific, simple hypothesis or null hypothesis is one designed to be easily tested; it can be either accepted or rejected or upheld or discarded. If repeated tests under different circumstances support the hypothesis, then the hypothesis can be developed into a theory. From this theory further hypotheses can be generated. A theory can be supported, validated, reframed, modified or rejected according to evidence. A theory that has been refuted must be discarded and is no longer referred to as a theory.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2021

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Eleven common mistakes when writing an abstract

An abstract is typically the summary or overview of a scientific paper, thesis or report. The purpose of the abstract is to give your reader a complete summary of your entire project. As there is a never-ending supply of papers and reports to read, you only have two chances to engage your reader and to convince them to keep reading. The first is the title (and the keywords) and the second is the abstract.

A well-written abstract will maximise the chances of your document being read, understood and even enjoyed. If writing a research paper, a well-written abstract will maximise your publication success. Not only will reviewers appreciate a good abstract, it may be the only part of the paper they are sent when invited to review a paper.

This focus of this article is to highlight what is commonly wrong with abstracts. Please note: The relevancy of some issues raised here might depend upon your discipline or document type. For example, some academic journals do not require abstracts at all or only require a very brief project overview.

These common mistakes are not listed in any particular order and some overlap:

1. Not writing a summary

The abstract should be a complete, succinct summary of your entire project. Summarising is being able to identify and highlight key points using as few words as possible.

2. Not paraphrasing your own work

Paraphrasing is when you use your own words to convey meaning from another source, with the aim of improving clarity. Paraphrasing often includes summarising. One common mistake is to copy entire sentences from different parts of the paper into the abstract. This is not summarising or paraphrasing.

3. Not summarising your entire project

A common mistake is to only include certain parts of the project in the abstract. If your paper is structured into Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion sections, then your abstract includes a summary of each section, often written as a complete paragraph or with headings. If the abstract lacks key information, for example the aim or the conclusions, the reader may not appreciate the strength of importance of your project and not be convinced to keep reading. Don’t assume your reader will search through your document for this information if they can’t find it in the abstract.

4. Using the abstract as a de facto Introduction or Discussion

After writing important introductory and conclusion explanations in the abstract, some authors then don’t include these details in the body of the document, fearing it will look repetitive. This can happen if the abstract is written before designing the rest of the document. Although drafting an abstract in the early stages of writing is a good idea, it is best to finalise your abstract when you have finished the rest of your document.

5. Including too much (or not enough) background

If the abstract is considered a de facto introduction, too much background may be included. Alternatively, a brief summary of the background might be omitted if the author assumes the audience is completely familiar with the project topic and the background. Never assume your reader knows your topic or project as thoroughly as you do; some of you readers might, but they will still need this information to appreciate what your document is about.

6. Including too many (or not enough) methods

A brief summary of the methods or procedure is important as they are a key component of any project. Given the potential complexity and diversity of a scientific study, it is easy to add too much detail about methods; an example is the unnecessary listing of all data collection instruments and their brand names. The following example from a research paper abstract is a concise summary of the methods. “Methods: We systematically reviewed the literature and meta-analyzed risk estimates from longitudinal studies reporting the association of coronary heart disease (CHD) or heart failure (HF) with risk of dementia.” Wolters F.J. et al. (2018)

7. Not explaining what your results mean

As your abstract should include a summary of all parts of your project, this includes a summary of the discussion or conclusion of your study. Some authors omit interpreting their results, expecting the reader to wait until they have read the entire document. They may not.

8. Including citations, abbreviations and detailed measurements

Standard convention is to avoid writing abbreviations, detailed measurements or citations in an abstract. In some cases, and in some disciplines, it may be difficult to avoid using abbreviations if they are used as terms, are not written in any other format, difficult to write in full or impractical to leave out.

9. Including information not presented in the paper

It may be tempting to include extra information that is not in the rest of the document but this is misleading. Stick to your key aim.

10. Not following the Instructions to Authors of your target journal

A journals’ Instructions to Authors are just that: instructions; they are not suggestions or simply good ideas, nor are they meant to replace a science style guide. Depending upon the extent of this omission, not following a journal’s Instructions to Authors can dramatically increase the likelihood your paper will instantly returned for further changes.

11. Not including keywords

Keywords of your study are essential to ensure that your paper is correctly indexed and so your document will be visible in different search engines. Some authors assume this step is not necessary, assuming that all terms will be visible. Keywords “help promote an article’s visibility within the publications iceberg”.


  • Don't assume your readers know everything you do.
  • Don't assume all published papers have good abstracts.
  • Seek feedback before finalising your later drafts.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2020

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How to identify your target audience

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. However, deciding who we are writing for is not always thoroughly considered. To a large 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 to a target audience might not be a high priority.

DOWNLOAD THE INFOGRAPHIC '6 ways to identify and cater to your target audience'

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 motivation is to satisfy project, organisation, company or client objectives. Audience-focused writers design their document according to the needs of the target audience, while still satisfying their own needs as an author and addressing project and client objectives.
Decide exactly what you want to do for your audience

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 exactly 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.

Problems caused by not understanding your target audience

Common writing problems often reflect that a writer has not thoroughly considered who their audience is or what they need. This can cause the following problems:

- providing too much (or not enough) detail or background information

- providing too much detail on unrelated sub-topics or on a well-known topic

- using the wrong language or unfamiliar terminology

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

One common mistake in science and academic writing is assuming your audience will know your topic nearly as well as you do. The problem with this assumption is that crucial background information and explanation of fundamental concepts may be omitted. Authors of research papers will often make this assumption deliberately if they are writing about a specialised topic. Yet even in these cases, it is not a good habit to omit important background information and project details that are necessary for the reader to understand the context of the research.

Get feedback

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that writing is simply delivering 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 as you do; your colleagues or supervisors may ensure you write a scientifically-accurate document but anyone overly-familiar with your topic may not realise that what you’ve written is not clearly written or easy to read.

There are three 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. I define three types of audience for most documents: the target audience, the secondary audience and the tertiary audience. For an example of this definition, refer to the diagram below that outlines the hypothetical audiences for an ecological research paper.

Your target audience is your intended audience. They are the group of readers that you want to read your document or you expect will read your document. These are the people you are designing your document for. Your target audience should understand everything you write. Some examples are research scientists writing peer-reviewed papers for their peers, students writing assignments for their lecturers or consultants writing reports for clients.

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 ecological 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. Your secondary audience may not be thoroughly familiar with your topic but still has a strong or vested interest in your projects’ outcomes. However, it is not possible to cater to both your target audience and your secondary audience with the same document. You cannot cater to the secondary audience as you would need to provide too much detail or instruction, making it tiring for the target audience to read, or worse make the target audience feel the document is not designed for them.

You cannot explain everything for your secondary audience but you can help them navigate your document by defining your key terms and ensuring your main aim and findings are abundantly clear.

Your tertiary audience are people who will directly or indirectly benefit or be affected by your work in some way but will not read your document themselves; they will learn about your work either through the secondary or target audience of your document. Because your tertiary audience won’t be reading your document, it is crucial for you to ensure your key messages are abundantly clear so they are not mis-interpreted or mis-represented.

Key ways to identify and cater for your target audience

  • Think about who your readers are and whether they fit into either of the three audience categories, then focus on how to cater for the target audience. Some factors to consider:
  • Who will want or need to read your document? What reasons do they have for reading your document?
  • Who will be interested in your topic and key findings? Why will they be interested in reading your document? If they are not already interested, how do you attract them?
  • What is their occupation, expertise, background or level of education?
  • Will they be able to understand all parts of your document? If not, include sufficient detail and explanation to ensure that they do or assign them to your secondary audience.
  • What people need to read your document
  • What task(s) will your document perform for them?
  • How they will find out about your document?
  • How will they access your document?

           DOWNLOAD THE INFOGRAPHIC: 6 ways to identify and cater for your target audience

Once you have clearly mapped out who you are writing to and how you will cater to them. If appropriate, ask someone from your target audience to give you feedback on a late draft of your document. You might find there are some important aspects you still need to consider.


  • Do not assume your readers know everything you do.
  • Understand there are different types of audiences who may read your document.
  • Always define your key terms and explain your key concepts.
  • If appropriate, ask someone from your target audience for feedback on a late draft of you rdocument.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2020

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