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?