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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 

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