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Triple-A S: Advancing Science, Serving Society

Writing to Readers’ Needs

Kristina E. Anderson is a plain language and health literacy writer, editor, and consultant in the medical and science fields. She has a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of New Mexico and is a member of the National Science Writers Association. Her Web site is www.easyreadwriting.com.

By Kristina Anderson

Previously I talked about the process of putting together a first draft. Next, I’ll talk about how I weighed all the feedback we got on the first drafts. Some of it was conflicting and negative, which was good, but it made the final writing really challenging. I had to meet the needs of a varied audience that held differing opinions—some of them personal, some of them professional.

So how do you go about making sure everyone in your reading audience is happy?

How to write to your readers’ needs

Do you know who your readers are? They’re scientists, most likely, but are they colleagues, teachers, researchers? What do you know about them? How familiar are they with your research or your topic? How old are they? How long have they been working in the field? Were they trained in a different country or culture? Why would they want to read what you’ve written? What media will they use to read your work? And, very importantly, what do you think it is they want to take away from your work?

These are questions you need to ask yourself before you begin the writing process, because it is more difficult to reach an audience if you don’t know who that audience is and why they should care. Remember that you’re writing for people, and people bring their emotions, wants, needs, and expectations to whatever they’re doing in life.

When writing the Healthy Pregnancy booklets, I knew I was writing to a varied audience. The end-user was young, low-income mothers living in Pittsburgh. Many were minorities. Most did not read very well. But there were other people who would use these booklets, mainly doctors and other health care providers. Everyone wanted the content to tell their side of the story about healthy pregnancy. For example, some providers wanted us to emphasize breastfeeding and omit bottle-feeding as an option, even though some mothers are unable to breastfeed. The moms wanted us to include information for the dads, particularly teenage dads, because they wanted them to understand the emotions a woman goes through during pregnancy and be more involved as fathers.

The providers and moms differed on the size of the finished booklet, the inclusion of extended family members, and statistics on risk factors. Providers wanted information on how to quit smoking. Moms wanted to know how to cut back rather than quit.

After reviewing all the feedback, I began writing new drafts. The moms were our primary audience so their needs came first. I knew I had to provide them with the information they wanted to know or they’d toss the booklets in the trash.

Because our readers were at different ends of the reading and comprehension scale, I couldn’t please everyone on every level. But I knew I could create a trio of booklets the providers would support and the patients felt were written for them.

To do that, I weighed every single word. I had imaginary conversations with the moms as I wrote. I knew my audience. I had worked with it in several hospitals. And I made their needs my needs.

Know your audience well, and it will serve you well.