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The 3 possible audiences of scientific and technical writing

Table of Contents

Posted June 26, 2018

Every writer should have an idea of their readers in mind when they work. In sales and marketing, writers will even construct “buyer personas” that represent their target customers and can include incredibly detailed information, including socio-economic status, demographics like age and gender, typical hobbies and interests, buying preferences, and more. The writers then use this information to write highly targeted materials that they know will resonate with their intended readers.

People who work on technical matters and research – science writers, engineers, and technologists – rarely put that much effort into defining their audience, yet it may be even more important for them than others to understand their audience. That’s because their writing often covers subject matter that requires greater than average education, knowledge, and/or expertise to understand.

Each piece of scientific, research, and technical writing has three possible audiences, and each reader makes different demands of the writer.

1: Those who know what you know.

If you’re writing to other professionals in your field, you may be confident that they know the same jargon, terminology, and underlying concepts. Perhaps the most important consideration with this audience is relationship: the connection between you and your readers will determine your tone and approach. With clients, you might be formal and polite; with trainees, instructive and authoritative; or with colleagues, casual and conversational. You must also consider your goals for the writing; will you need to overcome objections or be persuasive? With this audience, “how” to communicate concepts is typically less urgent than understanding “why” you’re communicating in the first place.

2: Those who know more than you do.

Technical-oriented writers may occasionally find themselves writing reports, research, or even instructions aimed at readers who know more about the subject material than they do. It might be a proposal or request that will be reviewed by experts, or perhaps Research & Development is dipping its toes into a new area of exploration. When writing to an audience of experts, be wary of bogging down writing with unnecessary information and explanation. Don’t “over-write,” as doing so can alienate the reader and obscure the intended message.

3: Those who know less than you do.

This may be the most common audience for most science and engineering writers. Writing to non-experts obviously means more explanation and plain speaking will be required, as the traditional vocabulary and writing conventions of your area of expertise may not work. This is especially true if you’re writing to a scientifically or technologically illiterate audience (that is, much of the general public). Try to think through what readers will do with the information. Ensure you provide all the information necessary for them to make whatever decision or take whatever action you have in mind. Then, try to position the information in a way that aligns with the reader’s motivation, which can help overcome resistance to fact-based scientific messages.

The 3 possible audiences of scientific and technical writing

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