Know your readers, part 1

May 6, 2009 at 2:16 pm Leave a comment

In journalism, reporters are taught to regard their readers as impatient and fickle, with puny attention spans and a tendency to abandon a story the instant it fails to keep their interest. That’s why journalists work so hard to make their stories clear, concise and clutter-free. They know that if their writing makes the going tough, their readers will get going.

When scientists write, on the other hand, they don’t have these same worries. Unlike the general audiences that reporters cater to, readers of scientific publications are reading not for pleasure, but to get the latest findings in their fields. This means that even if the writing is dense, awkward or muddled, most scientists are curious and driven enough to stick things out.

Or are they? Here’s what Dutch physics professor Ad Lagendijk* has to say about scientists as readers:

“Your average reader is mildly interested. Never expect scientists to go through your article from beginning to end.”

And this:

“Professional researchers have to browse many, many papers on a daily basis and are continuously looking for a pretext to put yours aside. You can call yourself lucky if they grant you ten seconds to obtain a first impression.”

Hmm… It sounds to me like readers of science are pretty similar to readers of news: They’re overwhelmed with information, have limited time, and want to get to the main point as quickly and painlessly as possible.

What then shall you do? Just like a journalist, you must strive to make your words and style as readable as you possibly can. Resist the temptation (to which so many scientists succumb) of blaming the reader for not being intelligent or diligent enough to understand you. As the eminent writer, editor and teacher William Zinsser says in his classic book, On Writing Well:

“It won’t do to say that the reader is too dumb or too lazy to keep pace with the train of thought. If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough.”

*From: Survival Guide for Scientists, Amsterdam University Press, 2008


Entry filed under: Audience.

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Science of Scientific Writing

This article describes what readers expect when they read - and how scientific writing often violates those expectations.

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