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Dennis G. Jerz
Online Projects: What You Should Know First
This site addresses issues of writing on the web in general.  The "write for strangers" section (there is a bookmark at the top of the page) talks about an audience issue specific to web writing: random visitors.

Before you can decide how to present your information, you must first know whom you are presenting it to.

  1. Questions to ask yourself 
  2. Examples of varying audience
  3. Examples of adjusting material for a specific audience
    1. Students
    2. Professional Research Scientists

1) Questions to ask yourself

·        Who will be reading this?

·        What kind of background do they have?

·        Will they be familiar with the terms used in this subject?

·        How much detail do they need to know or will they want to know?

·        Which pieces of information are most vital and interesting to them?

·        What kinds of writing are they used to reading and will be most comfortable with?


2) Examples of Varying Audiences

·        Professionals

·        Specialists

·        Lay people

·        Children

·        Handicapped people

·        Foreign speakers

·        All of the above and more

It is very possible that you will be writing for more than one type of audience and your audiences may have several layers.  The goals and concerns of those people may also vary widely.  The following are several scenarios in which you may have to consider multiple target audiences:

·        If you are writing a paper for a class, your main audience will be the professor reading it, but the document will also be presented to your peers.  In this case, you need to have a level of sophistication that shows the professor your knowledge and grasp of the material as well as a clear and simple enough explanation that your peers can follow your train of thought.

·        If you are putting together documentation for a project that your non-profit organization has spent a great deal of time and money on, many people have a vested interest in the content of that material: the coordinators of the project, the volunteers who provided the main source of labor, the donors who funded the project or who are considering providing additional support, the community members benefiting from or being inconvenienced by the project, and the board of directors who are concerned about the overall image of the organization.

·        If you are writing instructions on how to activate an automatically inflating life vest on an airplane, you have two main factors to consider: the people who may be using those instructions and the state of mind they will be in if they actually need to use that life vest.  The people using those instructions can be from any walk of life and will have varying degrees of proficiency in the reading the language.  If the situation arises that it is suddenly necessary to inflate that life vest, most people will not have time to study the instructions in detail.  Therefore, the instructions should be as simple and straightforward as possible including only the most vital information in the main instructions.


3) Examples of adjusting material for a specific audience

There are many ways to adapt information for a specific audience.  Below are two examples that show writing that is inappropriate for one audience, but more appropriate for another.  Neither excerpt is necessarily poor writing, but is simply targeting the wrong audience.


1.  Your intended audience consists of new students trying to find their way from the dorms to the library.


From the south entrance of the dormitory, head south by southwest for 0.163 km and then bear 17 degrees north until the grade of the road increases by 42 percent at which time your course should adjust 5 degrees west for another 0.182 km.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of intuition to guess that these directions will not be easily interpreted and used by the average college freshman.  This audience may already be intimidated by the surroundings and a conversational tone would be very reassuring. However, this example might work well for a group learning to navigate without standard reference points.
Yes From the main entrance to the dorm (right by the mailboxes) turn left and follow the sidewalk until you come to the large hill in the middle of campus – about 3 blocks down from the dorm.  At the bottom of the hill, take the right fork in the road.  This will take you right past the side entrance to the library, which has bright blue double doors.
These instructions are much clearer for an average person trying to find his/her way around a campus and doesn't require any special equipment or knowledge to interpret.


2.  Your intended audience consists of experienced chemical engineers genetic biologists looking to duplicate a research experiment.


Carefully put on the thick insulated gloves, making sure that no skin is exposed, and gently lift the thin glass tube from the hot water.  Set the glass into the wooden rack and quickly put the measuring devise around one side of the tube to see if the heat caused the glass to become bigger.

These instructions use extremely simple language and focus on procedures that are common knowledge for an experienced scientist.  These instructions would be more appropriate for a middle school science class with students that would need safety measures spelled out.
Yes Remove the test tube from the beaker once the water has reached 100 degrees Celsius.  Check for expansion of the glass with the pre-calibrated calipers.
These instructions are much more to the point for professionals that don't require the safety information in the first example.  If these situations were to be reversed, these terms would be unfamiliar to many middle school students, making the directions dangerous and unclear.

Amanda Fullan, UWEC senior
10 Nov 2001 -- first posted