Know your readers, part 2

May 26, 2009 at 9:50 am Leave a comment

For the longest time, the phrase “know your readers” completely baffled me. I couldn’t fathom how I was supposed to know anything about people I’d never met and never would meet, much less what they needed from me. My confusion quickly turned into frustration, and from there, rebellion. I decided I would focus on what I wanted to say, and the readers (whoever they were) could fend for themselves.

I’ve since realized that giving some thought to the audience is actually a good thing. Now, however, instead of commanding myself to know these elusive people, I ask: Whom do I want to reach? Then, I picture a real-live person who fits this category of reader, and write to that person.

For example, when I worked for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), I wrote a newsletter for WARF employees who spanned the gamut from Ph.D. scientists to secretaries. The secretaries, I knew, were frustrated that nobody really tried to make the science behind WARF’s patents understandable to them. So, when I wrote a newsletter story about DNA microarrays, I kept a certain secretary in mind.

Visualizing her as I typed allowed me to anticipate the questions she might have, what might confuse her, and the additional background she might need. In the end, although I never told her about my strategy, she came and thanked me for writing such a clear explanation.

In How to Write Mathematics, mathematician Paul R. Halmos also advocates for writing to somebody specific because, he says, “The writer must anticipate and avoid the reader’s difficulties. As he writes, he must keep trying to imagine what in the words being written may tend to mislead the reader and what will set him straight.”

So, as you write, picture yourself explaining your findings to a colleague who is smart and interested, but mostly unfamiliar with your work. Or, if that’s still too elusive, have people other than your advisor and co-authors review your drafts. If you’re planning to submit to a journal read by biologists, have an experimental biologist read your manuscript. Or have a fellow BACTER trainee look it over. (Or me, of course.)

These are the people who can teach you the most about audience, because while your advisor can still follow you when your writing is vague, jargon-y and awkward, these folks can’t. And the more you solicit their comments, the better able you’ll be to anticipate their needs in the first place.

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Entry filed under: Audience.

How to become a better writer Scientists on scientific writing

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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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