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Technical Writing: Writing for a Nonscientist Audience

Technical Writing: Writing for a Nonscientist Audience

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T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Technical Writing: Writing for a Nonscientist Audience

Adapting one's technical text to suit audience needs and goals is a theme
that reappears at every grade level of the Common Core State Standards.
This can be challenging even for professional scientists and engineers, of
course, especially when they craft an op-ed piece, a public blog post, or
a memo to a prospective donor. Few students face exactly those tasks, but
techniques that respond well to this challenge can help everyone communicate
to the public more effectively (a valuable life skill).

A good example is the communication advice that Nancy Baron gives to working
scientists and engineers in her 2010 book Escape From the Ivory Tower
(Washington: Island Press). Her basic scaffold is a rectangle (or "message
box") that she divides into quadrants to help resolve complicated technical
issues into four focused components that are easier to explain (much as
a prism resolves white light into colors).

The box as a tool has its benefits. But if we look a little deeper into
how Baron uses it, beyond its superficial features, three hidden techniques
emerge that are really very effective and that students can successfully
deploy to help themselves whenever they write.

"To be successful," Baron tells scientists trying to write for their boss,
their funders, their elected representatives, or the public, "your [technical]
message must be
[1] easily understood,
[2] memorable, and most important,
[3] relevant to your audience" (p. 106).
As she illustrates her "message box" scaffold on typical science-policy
issues, three strong but often-overlooked techniques come into play.

Use Full Sentences

Most scientists and engineers first characterize their target issue with a
phrase--such as "responsible waste disposal" or "health effects of global
warming." When she transfers such issues into her "message box," Baron
always converts them into a full sentence, an assertion with an obvious
subject and verb (perhaps "Radioactive chemicals should not go into drains"
or "Climate change triggers disease epidemics"). Sentences are harder to
come up with than just phrases, sometimes annoyingly so, but they very
usefully force the writer to specifically assert some claim and hence force
readers to consider that claim (and seek evidence for or against it).
Likewise, full sentence outlines are much harder to build than just phrasal
ones, but they force the writer to spell out what their line of reasoning
really is, not just their set of topics.

Focus on Problems and Solutions

Baron urges writers to decompose their technical issue into four components
(p. 113):
1. The Problem
(E.g., "There is a large regional difference in disease burdens due to
global warming.")
2. The Solution
(E.g., "Adopt policies that confront climate change.")
3. The Benefits
(E.g., "Take care of current population without compromising health for
future generations.")
4. The Significance
(E.g., "Those most at risk...are least responsible for causing the problem.")

Choosing a problem/solution axis for this decomposition makes this approach
to clarity very strong. Readers of nonfiction easily attend to and benefit
from a problem/solution framework, just as readers of fiction find that
challenges, risks, and problems make story-telling more interesting. Yet
many novice nonfiction writers overlook a problem approach unless it is
pointed out to them.

Be Concise

Baron shows one real scientist's first attempt to fill in the four quadrants
of his message box: each zone is crammed with words (although at least
using full sentences) for a total of about 320 (p. 113). After coaching
from her, the revised problem/solution analysis (mostly quoted above as the
example) totals only 23 words, less that 10% of the original. This of course
is standard good-description advice: use only the words really needed to
do a writing job.

So, as Baron's message box illustrates, encouraging students to plan using
full sentences, to talk in terms of problems (rather than just topics),
and to trim unneeded words can help them adapt their technical text to
almost any audience.

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