Consider the Audience

Dallas_editHere is another insightful post by professional writer, Dallas Murphy. Dallas conducts annual science-writing workshops for Ph. D. candidates and post docs at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, the Bergen Geophysical Institute, the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, and the University of Hamburg. 

All writers want to know, “Who is my intended audience?”  But most of us who write for a living have only the vaguest idea of our audience.  Our obligated friends notwithstanding, we write to strangers, to the “general public.”  That’s a lot of people, and there’s no specific identity in it.  Is it everybody who reads?  How do we address everybody?  What common ground, knowledge, and assumptions do we share?  And if we can’t address everyone, then what segment(s) of the general public might be interested in what we have to say?  Some of us feel kind of lonely, crafting our sentences in solitude to a faceless audience.

As a science writer you don’t need to ask those questions.  You know clearly the identity of your audience.  When you write, say, a paper titled Deep Convection in the Irminger Sea and submit it to the Journal of Physical Oceanography, you can be pretty certain that your audience will consist of oceanographers, if not strictly physical oceanographers.  Also, it’s unlikely that you would have written that paper if you weren’t an oceanographer yourself.  If you’re writing an interdisciplinary climate-science paper, some language adjustments will probably be necessary, but you can count on the fact that climate scientists will be aware of the role of ocean circulation in climate.  The wider your intended audience, the more adjustment will be required, but the general point remains:  Your audience consists of your colleagues, the same people with whom you might discuss your idea for a paper on deep convection over a cappuccino between talks at the AGU.  You can actually put faces to your intended audience.  This—call it the luxury of a narrow and identifiable audience—tells you a lot about how to compose a science paper.

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For example, consider how your deep-convection paper would need to change if your intended audience were the general public.  Before you explained your new research, you’d need to define convection itself.  You’d need to explain the physics of convection, which would require delving into the concept of distinct water masses within the body of the ocean, and how their differences in density and temperature can cause water masses to move, to convect.  This is thorny stuff to the uninitiated (as a veteran oceanographic outreach writer, I know that firsthand), so you’d have to deliver colorful, stylish prose, perhaps with clever similes and metaphors, in order to engage the audience and to afford some literary pleasure for its own sake.  As a science writer, you don’t need to do any of that.  Your intended audience knows about deep convection because, like you, they’re oceanographers.  And they don’t want to hear what they already know, so there is no value in a lead sentence in the introduction that reads, for example, “Ocean circulation is important as a determinant of climate stability.”  What new aspect of convection have you uncovered?  That’s what your audience wants to hear, and that tells you a lot about how to structure your paper.

I like how Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner in their book Clear and Simple as the Truth home in on the essential nature of this kind of communication.  The writer sees something the reader has not yet seen, and the writer’s unalloyed purpose is to lead the reader to this new vision.  The writer and reader are equals; the reader will understand your point and its evidence if presented in economical, clear, and simple form.  Further, the authors propose, written communication is modeled on and written in lieu of actual conversation.  In process, then, the writer can usefully ask, “How would I present my point to a colleague sitting across the table?”

The clarity here—in both the profile of the audience and in the motive for writing the paper in the first place—won’t write the sentences for you, but it suggests the kind of prose that will serve both.  We don’t go to technical science papers for literary entertainment, but to learn about something new in our particular field, and this takes the onus off the science writer to be a stylist.  Only clarity is incumbent on you.  Just tell it straight out in active prose, clean sentences with strong connections between them, no wasted words, no confusing connections between paragraphs.  The science writer need only be a clear thinker speaking to humans, not journals, in straightforward prose.

We’re talking here about the process of writing the paper.  Sure, in order to publish it, you’ll need to conform it to the conventions of the particular journal (in this, GRL is different, for instance, from JGR), and you and your advisor probably have in mind a particular journal before you actually begin writing.  Science writing is highly conventionalized literature, requiring, quite sensibly, separate parts with specific requirements, an abstract, introduction, methods section, and conclusions.  All that conformation to the journal’s conventions can—I believe should—happen later in the writing process, after you’ve stated in clear prose your new findings.  Everything else in the paper swings around that statement.  And when writing (and rewriting) the statement, remember whom you’re speaking to, professional scientists, people just like you, indeed people you know, maybe even friends.  Don’t worry about sounding erudite or somehow “scientific,” or anything else.  Just say it.  That done, you will have in hand the point and purpose of a science paper.  Knowing that and having written it, you can broach the conventional parts with clear-headed intention.

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