WRITING TO ACHIEVE YOUR GOALS

Writing Goals

Effective writers do not write the same way all the time. Instead, they make choices and tailor their writing to achieve the goals of the specific piece. It’s useful to think about your writing goals as they relate to who you hope to reach with your writing — your audience – and what you hope to achieve with your writing – your purpose. Let’s examine audience and purpose separately, followed by how they collectively define your goals and ultimately influence your writing.

 In this section:  Audience PurposeAudience & Purpose

Audience

When writing lab reports in your introductory level science courses, your audience was likely only your professor. In professional forms of scientific writing, this is not the case. Your professor (or research adviser) may still may be a member of your audience, but will your classmates also be reading your paper? Will your paper be shared with a thesis committee? Submitted for publication in a journal? Who reads the articles in that journal? Who decides whether your paper will be accepted for publication? Whether real or simply intended for the purposes of an assignment, the audience should influence what and how you write.

Identifying your audience before you begin writing will determine how much context and background information you need to provide, how much and which details you include, and the writing conventions you adhere to.

Although audience is best considered as a spectrum of possibilities, some useful audience categories to consider include:


General audience

readers with a casual interest in the topic or field, but little or no formal scientific training

Students

beginning learners in a scientific discipline but relatively little training in the specific topic/methods being written about

Scientists

specialists in some field/sub-field of science but not in the specific topic/methods being written about.

Experts

specialists in the specific topic/methods being written about

Scientific writing typically targets expert and scientific audiences via journal articles, research proposals, and scientific posters, although students often finds themselves reading these scientific genres, too. The fact that scientific writing doesn’t typically target students is part of the reason that reading scientific papers can be so challenging!

How does audience influence my writing?

Consider the following passages, which describe aspects of UV/Visible spectrophotometry, a technique used or encountered in many science fields. Each passage targets a different audience. Can you identify whether each passage most directly targets a general audience, a student audience, or a scientific/expert audience?

The practice exercise provided an introduction to some of the types of choices writers can make in order to reach their intended audience, including choices regarding content, vocabulary, and writing style.

Before you write, identify your audience.

To get started on identifying your audience and tailoring your writing to that audience, ask yourself

  • To (or for) whom am I writing? Is it a specific person, an organization, a diverse group of people with varying needs?
  • What is my audience’s background knowledge, training, or experience in the science? in this scientific discipline? in this specific topic?
  • What does my audience need to know? find useful? find interesting?
  • What does my audience expect to learn from me?
  • How much time will the audience spend engaging with my work?

 

Purpose

The purpose of jokes is to make people laugh. The purpose of textbooks is to teach. The purpose of professional scientific writing is often to share original findings. Although writers often have an obvious overall purpose for writing, effective writers identify many additional “sub-purposes”. These sub-purposes though less obvious, act like stepping stones and are critical for achieving the overall goal. For example, the overall purpose for writing a scientific grant proposal is to convince someone to fund your research. You will only be successful in this overall goal, however, if you achieve several sub-purposes, such as to persuade reviewers that your idea is original and significant, to convince reviewers that your methods are innovative and feasible, and to convey your research team’s qualifications and ability to carry out the work.

How does purpose influence my writing?

Let’s consider the same UV/visible spectrophometry subject matter we examined earlier with regard to audience, but this time let’s use it to examine purpose. Can you identify whether the primary purpose of each passage is to teach, to inform, or to persuade?

The practice exercise provided a first glimpse into the types of choices writers can make in order to achieve their writing purpose, including choices regarding amount of detail and explanation and content (factual, subjective).

Before you write, identify your purpose.

To get started on identifying your purpose and tailoring your writing to achieve your goals, ask yourself

  • Why am I writing?
  • What am I trying to achieve with my writing?
  • What sub-goals does my writing need to achieve in order to be effective as a whole?
  • What would success look like for this piece of writing?

 

Considering Audience & Purpose Together

Audience and purpose help define your writing goals and are your starting point for decisions you will make as a writer. Consider preparing for an event with the purpose “to teach”; most folks would intuitively approach the situation differently for an elementary school student audience versus a graduate student audience. Likewise, if the audience for an event were scientific staff, most folks would intuitively approach the situation differently if the purpose were to entertain versus to teach. Audience and purpose are typically considered together.

Although it may be less intuitive, it is no different in scientific writing; only by identifying your audience and purpose as first steps in writing can you begin to make the writing choices that will help you achieve your goal. Here are a few examples of common scientific writing genres, together with a typical audience and purpose(s) of each.

Note that individual instances of a given genre may target slightly different audiences. Consider, for example, introductory textbook versus graduate-level textbooks. Thus, the position shown for each genre on the audience spectrum is simply a reasonable average of what might be expected. Notice, too, that genres typically have a primary purpose (solid line in the figure above), but might also have secondary purposes (dashed lines).

How do audience and purpose influence my writing?

Imagine that you are writing a headline for an article about global warming. How might your headline change in order to better achieve each of the following purposes?

 

Can you identify the purpose and appropriate audience?

Examine each pair of passages (a and b), which refer to the same underlying science. For each passage, select the most appropriate audience and likely purpose of the writing. What aspects of the writing influence your answers?

The practice exercises highlight that the same scientific topic can be presented quite differently for different audiences and/or purposes. In order to achieve different goals, writers make choices regarding vocabulary, content, and writing style. Writing style is examined under Scientific Language but we will examine the first two here.

Vocabulary

Like any field, science is full of specialized vocabulary and “jargon.” This vocabulary can be quite useful to those who understand it, because it allows you to convey complex ideas succinctly. On the other hand, jargon can also frustrate readers who don’t understand it or who must frequently stop reading to look things up.

Consider the following jargon used in some of the “expert” audience examples above: absorption, highest-energy occupied molecular orbital, neutrinoless channel, valence electrons, gravimetrically, and (best of all!) disodium 6-hydroxy-5-((2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl)azo)-2-naphthalenesulfonate.

 

You may have noticed in the examples above that jargon was also used in some of the “student audience” examples. Indeed, jargon can be used effectively for nearly any audience. It is not simply about “using jargon or not”. Rather, effective writers consider how frequently to use specialized vocabulary and how much explanation to provide for a writing goal.

Consider the following original passages, which were taken from scientific articles and rewritten to reach a less expert audience. The use of jargon was minimized. What other changes in the writing do you notice?

 

In addition to removing much of the jargon, the passages written for a general audience typically added explanations for any jargon that remained. For example, we chose to remove the term “xenobiotics” entirely and replace it with the phrase “foreign chemicals”, but chose to retain the term “antioxidants” with the clarification that these are special molecules that defend against cellular damage. Can you identify similar content choices we made for other passages?

Content

In addition to the relative use of jargon (and associated clarifications), effective writers make many choices regarding what information to include and in how much detail. An expert would probably want to know the details of customized or highly specialized methods but may not need much detail on conventional and routine methods. An expert might also require a warning about safety hazards, but only if the hazards are extreme or less routine in nature. A student audience, on the other hand, may need step-by-step instruction on how to operate conventional equipment and may require warning about even routine or relatively moderate hazards.

Consider how the content and language differs in methods sections of a journal article versus in a laboratory manual.

Methods Section Content Tailored to Expert vs. Student Audiences

The relative importance of various content differs by audience but also with the purpose of your writing. The purpose of a journal article is primarily to share your new scientific work, so you will probably provide the most information and detail on your methods, results, and conclusions. In a research proposal, however, your purpose is to convince reviewers that your proposed work is important and worthwhile, so more background information and scientific context is key. In a scientific poster, your purpose is to provide viewers with a snapshot of your project in a short amount of time, so only the most essential details would be included (and would be chosen carefully).

As you write, adjust the content and level of detail to your writing goals.

Asking yourself these questions will help you make choices about which content to include and in how much detail:

  • What does my audience already know?
  • What is my purpose for writing and what does my audience need to do with the information I provide?
    • Do they need to be able to repeat the experiment on their own?
    • Do they need to understand my methodological approach in order to understand my findings and conclusions?
    • Do they need to decide whether my methods are an improvement over earlier methods?
    • Do they need to implement a change to public policy?
  • Would most people in the general field be familiar with the topic/method/equipment or is it highly specialized?
  • Is the instrument available commercially? Is it custom-built?

A helpful rule-of-thumb for deciding what methodological information to include is if the information critically influences the quality or nature of the data, then the reader needs to know about it. For example, the exact ruler or calculator or basic spreadsheet program you used is immaterial to the length measurements or basic math performed; these details do not influence the nature or quality of the data, so they do not need to be reported. In contrast, some scientific measurements could not be made reliably using low-resolution or cheaper equipment; because the data quality depends on the type of instrument used, you would usually report this information.

Consider the “does it influence the data” rule-of-thumb in these examples:

  • does the distance between sampling points on your elevational transect influence the biological data? (probably)
  • does the type of hip waders you used when measuring water temperature influence your data? (no)
  • does the composition of the lens in an optics experiment influence your data? (quite likely)

 

This completes our introduction to identifying your writing goals and to the types of choices writers can make to help achieve their goals. Considering exploring the Scientific Literature section of the site next, where you’ll learn how to find and use scientific literature in your writing.

Go to next section: Scientific Literature

 

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