Lecture: The MIT Guide, Ch. 3 & 4

Note: Unless I hear otherwise I will assume you understand the readings from The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication. Therefore, lectures on readings from the book will tend to be short, focusing on specifics I want to highlight. If you have any questions whatsoever about the readings, including material not covered in the lectures, please ask.

Chapter 3: Your Audience and Aims

Writing for audiences

As the title suggests, Ch. 3 discusses the importance of shaping your writing based upon your audience(s) and your aims.

The key issue in shaping your writing for an audience is to decide who will be the likely readers of your text and what are their likely interests (reasons) for reading your text. In terms of professional scientific and engineering writing, audiences can generally be divided into four groups: decision makers (managers), knowledge producers (experts), operators and maintainers (technicians), and generalists (laypeople). It’s worth remembering that few professional documents have just one audience. There’s the primary audience, secondary audiences, and hidden audiences. While your progress report may be written for and at the request of your supervisor, your secondary audience might be the people who supervise your supervisor (and the people above them). Hidden audiences might be a jury or a future research browsing an archive.

Sometimes you’ll have a very clear sense of who your audience is, such as when writing that progress report for your supervisor. Other times your sense will be less clear, such as when you’re writing for a specific NSF grant or submitting a paper to a journal; however, even then you should have a fairly good sense of your audience. For instance, a review written for Trends in Analytical Chemistry will have a different audience than a feature in Advances in Analytical Chemistry, and a research report in Analytical Chemistry Research will have a different audience as well. (While individual people might read all three journals, they’re reading each journal with different expectations and looking for different kinds of content.)

Page 30 of the book offers two useful examples of how a report on the seismic design of San Francisco Waterfront Facilities might be organized differently depending upon whether the intended audience is an expert or a manager. Note, for instance, than when writing for a manager, you might want to put recommendations second, following a summary of the problem and your findings; whereas when writing for an expert, the design recommendations come at the end of the report, which begins by defining the problem and providing background.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that sometimes your audience is other writers working on the same document. When that’s the case, it’s particularly important to understand your role in the project and where you fall in the development of the document as it moves along its pathway in addition to understanding where all the document might go in its life cycle (see pp. 32-34).

Keeping your aims in mind

While you need to shape a piece of writing for your audience, you need to do so in a way that meets your aims. In this way, as our authors Paradis and Zimmerman suggest, you can think of this interplay between addressing the needs of your audience and your aims as a problem to be solved. While there are lots of ways to write about improved lipid absorption for patients with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), who your audience is and what your goal is will greatly limit the ways you can and will want to write about the topic. For instance, if your goal is to ask your funder for additional money so that you can confirm and refine your findings and prepare recommendations to doctors treating IBD patients, your writing task is very different than if you are writing to convince doctors to change their treatment practices of IBD patients or if you are preparing a paper for a biochemistry conference.

Ch. 4: Organizing and Drafting Documents


Over the years, I’ve found that students either love or hate outlines, with most students hating them. I’ll freely admit that I hated them too, but part of the problem was that I thought an outline was that thing you did with the Roman numerals and the alphabet, using both upper and lower cases, which you drafted before you started writing. That is one kind of outline. If it works for you, great. If not, there’s plenty of other kinds of outlines, some of which you use after you’ve written your text as a tool to help you analyze (and revise) your organizational structure. (When I’ve found those formal Roman numeral and alphabet outlines helpful, it’s been to develop a detailed outline of a piece of writing after I’ve written the text it. Paring away the writing down to the barebones outline lets me analyze the organization and flow from issue to issue.)

Often, in professional writing contexts, the genre you’re writing (memo, journal article, grant proposal, recommendation report, etc.) will dictate an overall structure. Within that overall framework, who your audience is, what their interests and needs are, and what your aims are will dictate a structure. For instance, if you’re applying for one of three campus-wide dissertation fellowships to support your work on developing an improved haptic interface for CNC machining — fellowship proposals that might be read by a committee of faculty members from across the university — you’re going to want to define haptic interface and CNC machining. On the other hand, if you’re writing a research proposal for your robots lab supervisor to improve the haptic interface your lab uses to control the CNC machines, you’re not going to need to define those terms, which means you won’t need a section that explains what haptic interfaces are and what CNC machining is. Pages 43-45 of The MIT Guide offer a number of examples of brief outlines developed by isolating and arranging topics, integrating a general document design with your specific material, and adjusting the scope and sequence of your source material to reflect the needs of your audience.

Also, as the book suggests, showing your outline to others, whether it’s a preliminary outline created before you write or a structural outline developed from a written text, can get you necessary feedback. One of the biggest obstacles to effectively writing for an audience is that we know what we mean and we know how the ideas in our writing hold together. Because we know these things, it’s all too easy to assume our audience will know as well, that we’re telling them things that are too obvious. Sometimes this is the case, but often, because they are not — can not – be in our head, they will need far more context than we think they do. Having people look over your outline and asking them to point out gaps, places that need further development or topics that need to be covered, can help us learn to think like a reader of our work rather than the author of our work.