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.

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.

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.

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.

Why should you choose a journal before writing a first draft?

In life it often pays to be prepared. For example, before going for a night out we check that we have enough cash to avoid embarrassment when trying to get drinks. This same level of preparation and preparedness is also essential when you are writing a manuscript for submission to a journal.

Each journal is different and may have different rules on how much you can write and how to structure your manuscript. This might limit the number of figures or references you can include, or request specific details be included in subsections. You may think that you can edit your manuscript to meet these guidelines at a late stage, but this can be hard. If you have cited 100 references and are allowed a maximum of 30 which should you cull?

Maybe you think that you do not need to abide by these rules and your work will be accepted whatever. I have found that this is often not the case. For example, if you submit a manuscript that is overly long the editor will send it back with a request to edit the word count down and resubmit. This is additional work and time that could be better spent moving the research forward or writing grant applications.

I would, therefore, advise you to select your target journal, having written an outline and before you write a first draft. This enables unconstrained creativity when developing the initial flow of the article and deciding what to include, but then allows a targeted approach after this, which can maximize your chance of being considered by your chosen journal. By selecting the journal after the outline you also have more information at your disposal about the proposed manuscript and can reject journals if they do not allow a particular aspect of your manuscript, possibly seven huge tables or a video.

So be prepared and increase your chances of success!