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Writing an effective document takes thought and planning.
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Credit: Shutterstock
Writing an effective document takes thought and planning.

Communication is one of the most essential skills a scientist can have, and written communication is especially important because it can serve as a permanent record of your work. Spending a little time planning before you start writing will save you time and make your document more effective, whether it’s a proposal, a paper, or a report. Below are some questions to consider.

WHO IS YOUR AUDIENCE? Who will read this document? Who are the major stakeholders, interested parties, or decision-makers? How much do they know about this topic, and what is their technical background? Is there a secondary audience? For example, if you are proposing a new project to your manager, she will have to sell it to her manager as well. If you want to increase your chances of success, include the data your manager will need to build the case to her manager.

WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO TELL YOUR AUDIENCE? Does your audience need to know the entire picture or only the details on a specific section? Is your goal to inform or to persuade? Do you need to present both sides, or can you advocate for one position? Do you need to include scientific data, budget analyses, workforce projections, safety analyses, workflow improvements, or other information? What else will your audience need to make a decision?

WHERE SHOULD YOU SUBMIT IT? Selecting the right medium and format for your document is crucial because it will affect your credibility. Is what you’re trying to communicate more appropriate as a tweet or an article in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, for example? Do you need to write a formal report with references, or will a bulleted list of key points in an e-mail work better?

WHEN DO THEY NEED TO KNOW? Do you need to send something quick and dirty so your audience is aware of the issue as soon as possible? Or do you need to wait until all data are documented and confirmed (for example, a New Drug Application for the U.S. Food & Drug Administration)? It might be a good idea to have a preliminary conversation to prepare your audience and identify areas of concern. Is there a deadline for the report, and is it fixed or flexible? Is there any advantage to publishing the information early?

WHY SHOULD THEY CARE? Although the issue may be of supreme importance to you, you need to know why it’s important to your audience and to craft your document accordingly. It should be clear to your audience what result you want and by when. Do you want feedback, permission to start, or a budget and staff? What will you do if you don’t get an answer? One idea is to include an “ask” such as, “If I do not hear from you by Jan. 15, I will proceed with option B.” If you still can’t get an answer, can you at least find out when you will receive an answer?

Once you have worked through these questions, you will be in a much better position to write a compelling document that will have its intended effect. Remember that you are not your audience. Keeping your audience in mind will help you focus your writing and get the desired results.

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