How knowing your target audience could improve your writing

Sometimes when you read a scientific article you might feel that the authors are belittling you or aiming way to high, and you will put down the article and find something else to read. When this happens, the first thing I tend to consider is whether I am the target audience for that particular piece of writing. If I am, it might be that the authors had not decided on a target audience when it was written or have targeted the wrong publication venue, or it might just be that I am particularly interested or uninterested in that subject and so either no more or less than might be expected.

Why am I telling you this?

When we write, we often write to express ourselves and our thoughts and ideas on a topic, writing what interests us and not thinking about the person who will eventually read it. This is like designing a pair of gloves that fits us exactly and trying to market it as being suitable for everybody. We must remember that the point of scientific writing, if we aim to get it published, is for it to be read and thus spread our ideas, not solely for the sake of writing.

What should be done to help write appropriately for the audience?

Before you write your first outline, you should decide who will be your audience; not in a vague manner, for example saying anyone who is interested in hand care, but as precisely as possible, for example hospital hand care specialists. Once this audience has been identified you want to know what level of knowledge they will have on this topic. In the example, hospital specialists will likely already have a high level of knowledge and so would not want to have the basics of hand care told to them. This will make them assume the article is not for them and reduce the likelihood of them reading it. So in this case you could start the article at a high level, covering only the most pertinent points for the topic being discussed.

On the other hand, if your audience is hand care trainees you will want to include the basics, as you cannot assume that all trainees will have the requisite basic knowledge to make sense of the article. If the basics are missing then you could place a barrier in front of much of your audience.

Using ‘personas’

In certain industries, the target audience is identified and idealized ‘personas’ are created to emphasise key aspects that need to be catered for. A well-known version of these is the broad terms given to people born at different times or target voter populations during elections (e.g. Mondeo Man). This allows broad generalizations to be made to highlight differences between generations and allow the average member of this group to be targeted, hopefully allowing the maximum proportion of this group to be successfully reached.

I would not suggest that you should create these personas but they should serve to remind us that a target audience will often have a lot in common and this can be catered for. However, if we write from the beginning with our audience in mind then our writing is more likely to be relevant, and read, by the people we want it to reach.

Make sure you write regularly

Having told you not necessarily to publish everything in a traditional manner, I would recommend that you start trying to write regularly. This could be typing up experimental methods and results so that they are ready as soon as the decision to publish is made, putting together review articles or free-writing around a research idea.
This writing will hopefully improve your productivity, as well as helping to organize your thoughts and create new ideas, as well as potentially helping you overcome any stalling points in your research. It might be that you are trying to develop a total synthesis and you are stuck on a single step, by searching the literature and making notes on what others attempting similar transformations have done. This is likely something you are already doing, but by keeping written notes you will be have something that could potentially be the basis of a review article and you may notice connections that you wouldn’t spot if you just read and highlighted articles.
Finally, practice makes perfect and by writing more your communication skills should improve.

Don’t dilute your output

This probably sounds obvious, and it should be. Nowadays, scientists and researchers are judged, rightly or wrongly, by their publication history. This has contributed to the explosion in the amount of scientific literature available and if you browse it you will often see work that makes you wonder why it was published and what it adds. The obvious answer to this is that it adds to someone’s publication list and that is the only reason it was written up and submitted to a journal. Do you want to be one of the people who add to this pile of ‘irrelevant’ literature? I would hazard a guess that you do not want this. Therefore, this first piece of advice must be given with a proviso that you should write regularly, but only publish relevant work. This might necessitate a change in the way you think about publishing, for example if you have a series of experiments that confirm somebody else’s work that you have done as the groundwork for a research stream, you may want to publish them on your own website if there have been other people also publishing on this. This means that you will not be diluting your work and you will be known for your strong publications.

How should you decide who will be an author?

When deciding who should be an author, you might feel pressure to include people who have not directly contributed to the work being written about. For example, people who secured funding for the work or who are important in the department that you work in, might say that they should be authors.

As this might lead to questions about ghostwriting and honorary authorship, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors produced a uniform set of criteria for authorship. These are:

Authors “should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for relevant portions of the content” and should meet all three conditions below:

  • Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
  • Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
  • Final approval of the version to be published; AND
  • Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

These criteria are also included in GPP2 produced by the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals, which was published in BMJ.

If a person has contributed to some steps but not others then they should be included in the acknowledgements. This might include people who have helped perform an experiment, but not helped in the design, or who have proof read the article prior to submission.

The guidelines also suggest that if the study is very large there could be an authoring committee that takes full responsibility for the content of the manuscript. The full list of study investigators can then be included as an appendix. The article can then be published on behalf of everyone who is involved and if a person who is not on the authoring committee wants to include the manuscript on their CV they can do so.

Hopefully, by having articles published by authority figures on this topic you can feel better able to push back on any demands from people who you feel should not be an author.

References

ICMJE authorship criteria – http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html

GPP2 – http://www.ismpp.org/gpp2

Don’t aim to write scientifically, aim to write well

When we write something we are often trying to convey who we are, or more specifically who we want to be perceived to be, to the writer. This means that we will alter the tone of our writing according to the audience, an email to a friend will be different from a job application letter. When writing a scientific manuscript it is, therefore, often the case that people write it in a manner they perceive to be ‘scientific’.

What is scientific writing?

When I say scientific writing I mean writing with many technical words intended to convey the idea that you know what you are talking about. These technical words will often be jargon and in some cases might be better conveyed using ‘everyday’ language. This will limit the audience of your work to others who understand the jargon that you are using, as well as potentially making the manuscript more difficult to read.

How can scientific writing be avoided?

Once you have written your manuscript you should get other people to review it, at least one of whom should be reviewing the language used. This should be someone you trust as the feedback might not be what you expect from your ‘perfect’ draft. When you ask this person to review the manuscript you should specifically ask them to keep an eye out for overly ‘scientific’ language.

A second thing that you can do is to read the draft out loud once you have written it. By reading out loud, even if it seems odd, you can identify any issues with ‘pacing’ or where jargon might interfere with the ‘flow’ of the manuscript.

A word of caution

Do not remove scientific words if they are necessary, you should not dumb down just to improve readability. This is a tightrope that you will have to walk, but hopefully by asking others for their opinions this will help navigate the issue.

What are the next steps after the first draft is written?

Once you have produced your first draft and your co-authors have reviewed it, your aim should be to address the comments and get the manuscript submitted to your chosen journal as soon as possible. How you manage this will depend upon the comments you receive.

If they are minimal

  • Make the suggested changes, or ignore comments if you have a reason to do so and can explain it to the person who made the comment
  • Ensure the manuscript is in the style requested by the journal
  • Confirm that all authors are happy to submit
  • Submit to the journal

If there are major or conflicting comments

This will necessitate the development of a second draft and a further round of review. If the comments are conflicting then it is often best to have a teleconference to discuss them and ensure that everyone is in agreement before making any changes. If agreement cannot be reached then the lead author (or the guarantor for the manuscript) should decide what to do.

Depending on the comments on the next draft the cycle will then continue. However, it is important to remember that the manuscript is being written to be published and you should not have innumerable review rounds, demanding perfection if this is at the cost of submitting.

What should be considered when writing a first draft?

By the time you get to writing a first draft of a manuscript I would expect the following steps to have already been completed:

  • Author list confirmed
  • Data fully analysed and data for the manuscript selected
  • Target journal selected
  • Target journal author guidelines read and any appropriate guidelines (e.g. word counts, required sections) noted down, preferably on a cover page to the manuscript
  • Outline written and content agreed/commented on by all authors
  • Extended outline written and agreed/commented on by all authors

If an extended outline exists…

If an extended outline has already been written then the jump to a full first draft should be fairly easy. The bulleted text will be made into complete sentences and linking text added. At this stage further logical gaps in the “story” might be identified and highlight the need for additional introductory text or research. However, this should be fairly minor as these issues will hopefully be identified at the extended outline stage.

If an extended outline does not exist…

I would suggest that if one does not exist then it is beneficial to put one together before writing the manuscript in prose, even if you are not sending it to co-authors for review. This will make the writing of the first draft much easier and should enable the logical flow of the manuscript to be worked out as discussed in my previous blog post.

Remember to write to journal guidelines at this stage to avoid unnecessary editing later on.

Why write an outline?

I, like many other people I expect, have previously tried to write a novel. I attempted it as part of NaNoWriMo, in which people endeavor to write a 50,000 word ‘novel’ during the month of November. I sadly failed in this attempt and looking back I can see two reasons why I failed. Firstly, although I liked the idea I was sadly not that dedicated to spending all my spare time writing and so only managed about 25,000 words. Secondly, I ‘pantsed’ rather than planned – that is I thought that the great novel would flow fully formed without any real forethought or planning. The resultant work was a complete mess, with what amounted to three discrete short stories linked by events, none of which were that good. This experience has shown me the value of planning or outlining at least some aspects of a novel before starting and in future this is what I will be doing.

Why is this relevant to writing about science?

I feel that the same can be true when writing about science, although often to a lesser degree, as the planning and research for conducting experiments should hopefully lend an idea of structure. Nonetheless, whilst it is often easy to list of the key points in the narrative of the research, these can be lost or forgotten when writing a prose document resulting in a loss of coherence.

I would, therefore, suggest writing an outline when starting to work on a document. This should contain the key points for each section and detail any data to be included. This outline will enable you to see if the manuscript makes sense and if there are any gaps, either data gaps or gaps in reasoning, before more words are in place and the manuscript is more difficult to revise. The outline will also allow all proposed authors a chance to input into the manuscript at an early stage and make suggestions that could potentially strengthen the final piece of work.

How much detail should be included in an outline?

The first outline should not be overly detailed as this allows for the best discussion about the proposed structure and makes people more likely to offer input. I would suggest that key statements are included, without over much detail, in the introduction and discussion sections and more detail in the methods and discussion section as these are fixed and will enable people to make more informed comments on the discussion section.

Could an example be given?

If I were to be writing a manuscript on the epidemiology of type 2 diabetes in the South Asian population of the UK, the first outline for the introduction might look something like this:

  • Type 2 diabetes is a major public health issue and the incidence is increasing
  • Type 2 diabetes is more prevalent in South Asian individuals
  • It has been suggested that there are differences between South Asian and White people in the presentation and outcomes of type 2 diabetes
  • For example lower BMI cut-offs have been suggested for overweight and obesity in South Asian individuals
  • The South Asian population is not in fact a single entity, but rather made up of a number of different sub-populations
  • This database study investigates the clinical characteristics at diagnosis of type 2 diabetes for people from these sub-populations

This (fictional) example hopefully highlights the broad nature of statements made and it can be seen how these build up to the research question, showing why the issue is important. Once all authors have agreed upon the first outline, the points can be expanded upon and fully referenced.

If the message is incorrect, then the document fails…

I have just started perusing The Craft of Editing  by Michael Alley, which is subtitled A guide for managers, scientists, and engineers. Right near the start three different types of editing are highlighted, editing for content, editing for style and editing for form. However, the most important thing emphasized at this point is that whilst a lot of time might be spent discussing editing for style or form, these are relatively unimportant compared with editing for content.

Editing for content is defined as ensuring that the information included is correct, complete, appropriate for the audience, appropriate for the purpose and acceptable for distribution. This is generally managed by a different person to the other types of review as it will often require knowledge of the topic being discussed.

This is extremely important as we might have a beautifully written piece with no grammatical or spelling errors that is completely wrong for its intended use, and does not convey the correct key message, or even worse contains incorrect information and misleads rather than educates. This is very well put in the book where it states:

 If the message is incorrect, then the document fails, no matter how well the message is communicated or what form it is in.

I think this is something we all need to remember as we try to write or edit scientific literature.

In case you want to read this book it can be found on Amazon here: The Craft of Editing: A Guide for Managers, Scientists, and Engineers

What is a key message and why have only one?

When you read a scientific article to gain knowledge of what people have done and what they are thinking, what do you take away? Often when I was working in the lab I would specifically look for reaction conditions that might work for my experiments and ignore the introduction and discussion. However, if you read the entire article you likely will not remember exact experimental conditions once finished, rather you will hopefully leave with the idea that the article answered a question and you will take away an idea. This idea is the key message for the manuscript.

Determining the key message

Often when writing articles you will discuss what the message will be when planning the article and putting together the outline. This message will infuse the article, being proposed or hinted at in the introduction, expanded upon in the discussion and possibly explicitly stated in the concluding remarks. However, if you try to include two separate messages then you will muddy the message and it will be less impactful.

For example, if my message is that the new treatment I am discussing is efficacious and well tolerated I can easily build the article around this message. Whereas if the messages are that the treatment is efficacious and well tolerated, and also that it is extremely cost-effective compared to therapies currently on the market, then there will be two narratives running through the article aimed at different groups of people and this may cause confusion.

What to do if you want to include multiple key messages?

I would suggest that if you want to have two different messages for different audiences that you consider writing two articles. This will improve the ability of the article to reach the appropriate audience, and also allow each message to have maximum impact.