Analyzing Audience

In any type of writing, it is important to know and understand your audience. This is particularly useful when you are presenting information that is considered important in research. If you know and understand your audience, you can tailor your wording and persuasive techniques to match your readers. There are a number of important things that a writer needs to consider about their audience: education, occupation, age, and applicability.

Education

The audience’s education can tell a writer what words to use and what words to avoid. It also allows the writer to understand what prior knowledge the audience will have on the subject. For example, if the audience is people who have a high school education with no experience at college, you would avoid using words that are less common outside the speech of academics. Because the audience will not have heard the words enough to be familiar, they may not understand what is being said. If the audience has their PhD, you would be able to use those academic words. However, in the latter case, it is important to analyze what discipline their degree is in, because if the audience contains English professors and you’re presenting scientific information, you may not be able to use some of the more scientific terms. This goes alongside the second point: prior knowledge. You can assume, if the audience members are scientists in the field you are presenting in, that they know the basic workings what you are experimenting with. You would not need to explain as much of the process or what you are working with as you would need to if the audience had little to no scientific background.

Occupation

This category may seem closely related to education. However, it is important to know the occupation of your reader as well as the education, because they tell you different things. Even if your audience member has a PhD in science, they may not work in the field of science. So, they would be less familiar with the current scientific development than a scientist who may study these developments as part of their job. The audience member who does not work in science may have forgotten some of what they learned and may need a refresher. Ultimately, it is important to provide information in a way that anyone, even those who are less informed, can understand so that there is no confusion over what you are saying. This may seem tedious, because you know what you are saying. But your audience might not know, so make it clear and concise.

Age

There are many differences between age groups that are important to remember when you are writing. If the audience is older, you would avoid using some slang that hasn’t been around longer and speak in a more formal tone. If the audience is younger, you would speak using any slang you wanted and would use a less formal tone. Just like in real life, anything said would be different for someone who is a child compared to someone who is an adult. Also, you can consider how long the audience may have been out of school. They may or may not remember everything they learned. There is also the possibility that they know more than they did in school, depending on their job. If the audience is full of older adults, they would most likely have more practical knowledge. You can tailor your references and example to whatever age group you are writing for.

Applicability

The readers want to know why your article or work is important, why it applies to them. If you make it clear, say to an audience of scientists, that your work furthers other research in the field, then they will be more likely to read it. This applies to any of the different disciplines that work on undergraduate research. If you have some new evidence or claim that Shakespeare was a fraud, then English teachers would be interested to read it, whether to agree or disagree. Humans are curious creatures as a whole, if you provide something interesting that they don’t know, they’ll read it. This is why it’s important to remember what your audience has read and how it is important and applicable to them. They won’t want to waste time reading information that they already know.
Altogether, these factors, education, occupation, age, and applicability, allow you to tailor your research presentation and make it more interesting to people who may read it. It is important to encompass all possibilities within each category and find the balance between the different styles you may use.

Scientific Writing: A Story Worth Reading

When I think of science writing, I don’t often consider it to be anything riveting. Yet, I’ve seen that science itself can be interesting (just think Mythbusters). However, when science meets writing, the exciting parts of science seem to lose their appeal. Science writing has multiple negative stereotypes associated with it; it is often critiqued on the grounds that it isn’t interesting, that it is confusing, and that scientists are simply bad writers. If these beliefs are true, researchers, students, and patrons of the sciences have little hope for their writing. In 2013, Judy Swan, the Associate Director of the Princeton Writing Program, gave a TEDx talk entitled “In Praise of Technique”. Her talk highlighted many of these negative beliefs and voiced a new perspective on scientific writing. Through this post, I hope to break down some of Swan’s main points about scientific writing and apply them to students participating in scientific undergraduate research.

Seeing text from the reader’s perspective

One of Swan’s main points was the need for scientific writers to begin to change how they think about writing. She asked writers to consider the text from the perspective of readers. This is because not every reader of scientific research has a strong background in scientific thought or verbiage. The exposure of readers to science could be anywhere on the continuum of relatively small to relatively great. Therefore, scientific writing that assumes that every other reader of their work will hold the same understanding of the sciences that they do will lose a large readership. If scientists begin to see the text from the perspective of their readers, they begin to engage more deeply, explain, and passionately draw the reader into their work.

Is passive writing bad?

One of the stereotypes of scientific writing, as I said earlier, is that it is simply bad writing. Often, scientists choose to write in the passive form and are frowned upon because of this choice. Indeed, some people believe that passive writing is bad. By passive writing, I mean sentences such as: “Heart disease is considered the leading cause of death in the United States.” This sentence, far from being confusing or unclear, brings the subject forward as heart disease and leaves the researchers who discovered this out of the picture. Swan highlights these ideas in her talk, bringing up the fact that the passive voice can not only be intentional and useful, it can also bring the materials and the science being explored to the forefront. Thus, researchers and human agents fade to the background and the materials and science being studied are the subjects of the work.

Whose story is it anyways?

When thinking about scientific writing, Swan argues, one should first consider the audience, but also whose story the writing conveys. Instead of the research being about something that Dr. X has found, it is instead about the medicine for heart disease, the endangered species of the marshland, or the patterns of the milky way. Passive writing allows science to come to the forefront of the text. The story of science is conveyed to the audience. When considering science to be a story, the arguments and stereotypes against scientific writing begin to be replaced by a much more engaging narrative. This story has and will captivate an audience. Beginning to see scientific writing as more than a mere dissemination of findings can be transformative. The story of science can provide voices for cells, DNA, and other voiceless parts of the world. When scientists change their perspective and consider the story of the science they are studying, their writing not only will become better writing, it will also be more engaging for audiences.

Connecting Swan’s TEDx talk to undergraduate researchers

This TEDx talk is specifically relevant to undergraduate research because it combines two things that are often needed in scientific research: disseminating research findings and good writing. Swan’s ideas regarding thinking about audience can give research students a better focus on how to write their findings. This is deeply advantageous for students who want to present their findings to do: it can help build focus and foster creativity. Also, Swan’s talk reveals the value of writing in the passive form. Naysayers to this style don’t see the inherent value of bringing science to the forefront of the writing. However, a shift in perspective can make all the difference. Ultimately, this TEDx talk is a valuable one for both students of science and students of writing to watch. This is because it helps students in the sciences to think about their writing differently, and for students of writing to see the profound impact that scientific writing can have. Swan argues in defense of scientific writing. Scientific writing is a story worth reading.
Want to hear the talk for yourself? Check out the the video, found below: