susan smith nash, ph.d.

Technical English

Online Course

Writing for a Variety of Audiences

Audience analysis work -- see below.

Technical English Menu

Home Page & Overview
Required Work
Audience Analysis
Writing for a Variety of Audiences
Planning your Task
Editing, Part II
Technical Report
Technical Report, Part II
Progress Report, Choice I
Progress Report, Choice 2
Progress Report, Choice 3
Progress Report, Choice 4
Other Resources

Key Problem Areas -- in a nutshell

  • Strengthen transitions.
It may be difficult for readers, particularly non-specialists, to see the connections between the main sections of your report, between individual paragraphs, and sometimes even between individual sentences. You can make these connections much clearer by adding transition words and by echoing key words more accurately. Words like "therefore," "for example," "however" are transition words--they indicate the logic connecting the previous thought to the upcoming thought. You can also strengthen transitions by carefully echoing the same key words. In technical prose, it is not a good idea to vary word choice-use the same words so people do not get more confused than they may already be. 
  • Write stronger introductions--both for the whole document and for major sections.
People seem to read with more confidence and understanding when they have the "big picture"--a view of what is coming, and how it relates to what they just read. Therefore, make sure you have a strong introduction to the entire document--one that makes the topic, purpose, audience, and contents of that document clear. For each major section within your document, use mini-introductions that indicate at least the topic of the section and give an overview of the subtopics to be covered in that section. 
  • Create topic sentences for paragraphs and paragraph groups.
It can help readers immensely to give them an idea of the topic and purpose of a section (a group of paragraphs) and in particular to give them an overview of the subtopics about to be covered. Roadmaps help when you are in a different state!
  • Change sentence style and length.
How you write--down at the individual sentence level--can make a big difference too. In instructions, for example, using imperative voice and "you" phrasing is vastly more understandable than the passive voice or third-personal phrasing. Personalizing your writing style and making it more relaxed and informal can make it more accessible and understandable. Passive, person-less writing is harder to read--put people and action in your writing. Similarly, go for active verbs as opposed to be verb phrasing. All of this makes your writing more direct and immediate--readers do not have to dig for it. Obviously, sentence length matters as well. An average of somewhere between 15 and 25 words per sentence is about right; sentences over 30 words are to be mistrusted.
  • Work on sentence clarity and economy.
This is closely related to the previous "control," but deserves its own spot. Often, writing style can be so wordy that it is hard or frustrating to read. When you revise your rough drafts, put them on a diet-go through a draft line by line trying to reduce the overall word, page, or line count by 20%. Try it as an experiment and see how you do. You will find a lot of fussy, unnecessary detail and inflated phrasing you can chop out. 
  • Use more or different graphics.
For non-specialist audiences, you may want to use more graphics--and simpler ones at that. Writing for specialists and experts tends to be less illustrated, less graphically attractive--even boring to the eye. Graphics for specialists tend to be more detailed, more technical. In technical documents for non-specialists, there also tend to be more "decorative" graphics--ones that serve no strict informative or persuasive purpose at all. 
  • Break text up or consolidate text into meaningful, usable chunks.
For non-specialist readers, you may need to have shorter paragraphs. Notice how much longer paragraphs are in technical documents written for specialists. 
  • Add cross-references to important information.
In technical information, you can help non-specialist readers by pointing them to background sources. If you cannot fully explain a topic on the spot, point to a book or article where it is.
  • Use headings and lists.
Readers can be intimidated by big dense paragraphs of writing, uncut by anything other than a blank line now and then. Search your rough drafts for ways to incorporate headings--look for changes in topic or subtopic. Search your writing for listings of things--these can be made into vertical lists. Look for paired listings such as terms and their definitions--these can be made into two-column lists. Of course, be careful not to force this special formatting--do not overdo it.
  • Use special typography, and work with margins, line length, line spacing, type size, and type style.
For non-specialist readers, you can do things like making the lines shorter (bringing in the margins), using larger type sizes, and other such tactics. Certain type styles are believed to be friendlier and more readable than others. 

These are the kinds of "controls" that professional technical writers use to fine tune their work and make it as readily understandable as possible. In contrast, it is the accumulation of lots of problems in these areas--even seemingly minor ones--that add up to a document being difficult to read and understand. Non-professionals often question why professional writers and editors insist on bothering with such seemingly picky, trivial, petty details in writing--but they all add up.

Writing Assignment:

Find an online refereed article in your field.  Write five different one-two analyses of this article focusing on the five different audiences listed below:


Definition: Readers outside of their particular field of specialization.
Audience Characteristics

  • Read for enjoyment and non-specialized information.
  • Often interested in science and technology.
  • High school education and perhaps a B.A. or B.S.
  • No training or little prior knowledge of the topic.
  • More interested in "what" than "why."
  • Not a "captive" audience.
Writer's Strategies
  • Content: Topics that relate to their daily lives; ample background, usually in summary form rather than detail; practical information rather than theory; extended definitions; anecdotes and other human interest information.
  • Organization: Narrative, chronological, least complex to most complex, most interesting to least interesting, general to specific.
  • Style/Tone: Informal, readable; plain language--few technical terms and no jargon; active voice; analogies; shorter sentences and paragraphs; generally, 3rd to 9th-grade reading level; verbal explanations of data (rather than formulae and equations).
  • Layout: Lots of white space, color, other eye-catching graphics.
  • Illustration: Simple charts, maps, bar graphs, photos.


Definition: Readers responsible for decisions regarding personnel, production, or profits.
Audience Characteristics

  • Interested in effects and costs rather than in theory or mechanical applications.
  • Need quick access to information because of limited decision-making time.
  • B.A. or B.S., not necessarily in technical or scientific field.
  • Broad knowledge of the field, but not actively involved in technical work.
  • Frequently trained in a technical or specialized field.
Writer's Strategies
  • Content: Simple and concise background information; recommendations, criteria, discussion of alternatives; statistics on costs, personnel, facilities, markets, possible competition; non-essential data and information in an appendix.
  • Organization: Important information (conclusions and recommendations, summaries) at the beginning.
  • Style/Tone: Formal but not stuffy; readable; plain language--technical terms and jargon clearly explained; active voice; verbal explanations of data (rather than formulae and equations); shorter sentences and paragraphs than for expert; overall, similar to general audience, but perhaps a little higher level.
  • Layout: Pie charts, bar graphs, simple line graphs, tables.
  • Illustration: Headings, white space for easy access.


Definition: Readers trained in theory, and probably application, in field of specialization.
Audience Characteristics

  • Looking for new information or techniques.
  • Evaluating the information.
  • B.S. and/or experience; may have graduate work.
  • Captive reader.
Writer's Strategies
  • Content: Both theory and practical applications of theory; detailed background information; statement of objectives, scope, limitations; research methods outlined in sufficient detail for replication; conclusions drawn from data; references to previous experimentation, research, or publications in the field.
  • Organization: Conclusions and recommendations are at the end--specific to general (or general to specific to general); typical scientific report form.
  • Style/Tone: Formal, objective; standard terms, abbreviations, formulae may be used; non-standard usage should be identified and explained; active or passive voice; highly technical mathematics, formulae, equations may be used--verbal explanations may accompany them, but they, too, may be highly technical; longer and more complex sentences and longer paragraphs.
  • Layout: Tables, line graphs, complex charts, photos.
  • Illustration: Headings, but not as much white space.


Definition: Readers trained to build and maintain specialized equipment.
Audience Characteristics

  • Interested more in "how" equipment works than in theoretical experimentation or explanation.
  • High school education; perhaps B.S.
  • Less theoretical training than expert, but possibly more applied experience and/or training.
Writer's Strategies
  • Content: Only enough theoretical information to give some background and to help with trouble shooting; often general description of equipment, parts, operation principles, maintenance; emphasis on detail, but less than for expert.
  • Organization: Sequential or chronological.
  • Style/Tone Active voice; standard terms and abbreviations may be used, although some definitions may be necessary; formulae and equations should be limited; verbal explanations should always accompany them; short sentences and paragraphs.
  • Layout: Charts, graphs, and photographs are detailed, but not as complex as for expert.
  • Illustration: Carefully-labeled drawings; lots of headings, white space, numbered steps, color, graphic techniques (boxes, lines).


Definition: Readers responsible for actual operation of equipment.
Audience Characteristics

  • Interested more in "how" equipment works than in theoretical experimentation or explanation.
  • High school education or less.
Writer's Strategies
  • Content: Very general background only; emphasis on mechanical operation; detailed operating instructions.
  • Organization: Sequential or chronological.
  • Style/Tone: Active voice and imperative mood; all terms should be fully explained; no formulae and equations; short sentences and paragraphs.
  • Layout: Illustrations, photos, blow-up diagrams.
  • Illustration: Tables, charts, and graphs should be used only when necessary for operation; graphic techniques (bold, lines, boxes) to set off notes, cautions, and warnings; lots of white space; carefully-labeled drawings; lots of headings, white space, numbered steps, color, graphic techniques (boxes, lines).