May 25, 2007
Writing for non-scholarly audiences
Practicing scholars, and those trained as scholars but employed in other professions, often need to write for non-scholarly professional audiences. This is not pejorative: these are simply audiences with different objectives and needs. Because one of the first universal principles of communication is to formulate the communication so that it is understandable by and useful for the intended audience, scholars need to learn to write differently for professional audiences than they do for scholarly audiences. A 25-page journal article replete with careful footnotes simply won't do when the boss has time to read a two-page decision memo.
Writing is so important -- and so rarely successfully taught while students are in school -- that there are an enormous number of manuals, courses, coaches, etc. Indeed, there are far more aimed at writing for professional audiences than for scholarly audiences, since the former is a bigger arena. I am not an expert on this vast literature, but I relied on a variety of sources over the years.
One I currently find useful and recommend to my graduate (including doctoral and professional master's program) students appears online in two forms. The first is shorter, but has the intriguing feature of being part of the Wikibook project, so anyone can edit it: Business Writing. The longer version, on which the original edition of the Wikibook was based, not only includes more detail but also offers templates and other useful tools: Writing for Results.
These emphasize a four-phase approach to preparing written communication. This framework is sensible and unsurprising to experienced writers, but the less experienced often pay attention to only two of the phases (the second and fourth):
- Give Yourself a Frame of Reference
- Research and Select the Content
- Select the Medium
- Prepare the Message
The first (frame of reference) I generally think of as the most important underemphasized phase of professional writing. It includes deciding explicitly what your communication objective is, thinking about and understanding who your audience is, and understanding what your authority is (which should affect, for example, your voice and the warrants or evidence you need to bring to bear to support your claims).