Let’s Be Clear: How to Write for Your Intended Readers
In the first article in this series, we established that, like it or not, clear and effective writing is becoming an increasingly important skill in a science career. Unfortunately, writing doesn’t come easily for many scientists. This series aims to provide practical advice to help scientists write with more confidence.
In this article, we’ll explore the communication process and your role in that process as a writer.
Written communication is a process that involves a number of steps. Clear and effective communication happens only if each step is completed successfully:
- The writer comes up with an idea (message) they want to share with others.
- The writer encodes (writes) their message in order to share their idea.
- The reader decodes (reads) the message and tries to understand what the writer was trying to share.
Ideally, the reader will also have an opportunity to provide feedback to the writer to confirm that they have understood (decoded) the message correctly. If there is something in the message that the reader didn’t understand, that feedback may take the form of questions—asking for more information.
In the ideal situation, the cycle of encoding, decoding, and feedback continues until the message is understood correctly. Success!
Unfortunately, written communication is often a one-way process, so if the writer does not do their job well, the process breaks down and will not be successful. As a writer, there are things you can do to improve the outcome for your readers. A good place to begin is to consider the perspective of your readers.
Understanding your audience
Knowing your audience (your readers) determines what information you present and how you present it. But how do you get to know your audience?
The first step is to consider whom you’re trying to communicate with. By knowing more about your audience, you can craft your message to suit their needs, which will increase the likelihood that you will communicate successfully.
For example, if you were preparing a presentation for people in your department at work, you would probably know your colleagues and what they expect from you. You would know their backgrounds and levels of education, and you could be sure they would all understand your company-specific jargon.
On the other hand, if you were preparing a presentation for a funding agency, you might need to do a little bit of homework to figure out who your readers would be and what they would expect from you.
To ensure you’re focusing on the needs of your audience, begin by asking yourself the following questions:
- Who is your audience?
Think about their level of experience or knowledge about your topic. Use that understanding to tailor your message to their needs.
- What do they already know?
Focus on what’s important, and don’t bury your message in background information or unnecessary details. Leaving out information your readers already know or don’t really need to know will help you be concise.
- What terms do you need to define?
As a general rule, the less your audience knows about your subject, the less technical your writing should be. If you must use a technical term and you’re unsure if your readers will know what it means, explain it. Remember, no one (even a technical expert) ever complains that science writing is too simple.
- Why are you writing this content?
What do you want your readers to know, believe, or be able to do after they have read your content?
- Why will your audience be reading it?
Think about what they want or need to know, not just about what you want to tell them.
- What is the attitude of your audience toward your topic?
Try to anticipate the concerns, fears, or objections your audience might have, and address those in your content.
- What questions will they have?
If you can figure out the questions your readers might have, you can ensure you have provided the answers they’re looking for.
Answering these questions will help you understand your audience, which will help you craft a message that can effectively communicate specifically to them.
Feedback is always welcome! Have I successfully anticipated your needs as my readers? Let me know in the comments if this article (and others in this series) is helpful.
In upcoming issues, I will continue to explore ways you can make your writing clear and effective. I would also love to hear your suggestions for future articles. Is there a writing question or concern you would like me to address?