Analytical Writing for Science and Technology
Copyright © 1996 by T. M. Georges.

Lesson 5

How to Use a 'Marketing' or 'Top-Down' Approach to Your Writing


Lessons 5 through 8 help you answer the basic questions about WHAT TO SAY. This means deciding who you're writing to and what specific job you want your writing to do. The answers to these questions determine how you organize your paper or report and how you select and arrange the details you have to present. Lesson 8 contains checklists to help you answer the most important questions about seven specific writing tasks.

In this Lesson:


Your first step in figuring out WHAT TO SAY is deciding what purpose you want your document to serve. In this chapter, you will learn how to begin any writing task by identifying that purpose and deciding exactly what outcome or response you want from your reader.

The only practical purpose to have in mind as you write is to bring about some specific change in the mind of a specific reader or class of readers. Perhaps you want to get your proposal funded, to make some change in organizational policy, to instruct someone on how to use your latest gizmo, or just to get your point of view accepted by the scientific community.

Maybe you don't think consciously in those terms. Do you usually start a writing assignment by asking yourself what do I want to say? If so, this chapter will get you started thinking instead in a new direction: what does my reader want and need to know?


Business people call this a marketing approach. They have found that the most successful products and services are the ones that are the most carefully tuned to the genuine needs of the marketplace. The impact of Japanese automobiles in the American marketplace gives you an idea how effective this strategy is. Designing efficient transportation makes more sense than selling masculinity symbols.

Systems engineers call the same process another name: top-down design. The most effective and reliable hardware and software designs are built around a specific end product or user need. This is called a top-down approach because the total system can be viewed like an organization chart, in which the end use (systems people call it the functional requirement) is at the top, and the supporting modules represent the subtasks and problems that must be solved to make the system work. This strategy became so successful during the space program that structured design and top-down development have become the buzzwords of the decade in the systems engineering community.

So how can this proven strategy be applied to your scientific and technical writing tasks?


Ask some basic questions before you start

Start by asking yourself some simple questions about who you are writing to and the effects you want your writing to have. Then ask what you need to do to get that response, and then break down that task into problems and subproblems you need to solve to accomplish that task. The questions may be simple, but the care you take in answering them determines how successfully your document will be designed and the impact it will have.

With this approach, you'll learn to view your writing more actively -- as a way to get the results you want by giving your readers what they want. This means learning how to anticipate their needs as well as their responses to what you write. Because most scientific and technical writers fail to understand the basic needs of their readers, most scientific and technical writing says far too much and wastes both the writer's and the readers' time with useless information. They think it's safer (and easier) to just write everything than to discriminate and analyze.

These people forget that one of the things all scientific and technical readers want is to get through their reading as efficiently and painlessly as possible. (Don't you?) That's your first responsibility to your readers. So one of your first objectives, no matter what your subject matter is, is to help them do that. As you will find out in Part Three of this book, this means analyzing and interpreting what you have to say and telling them what's important and why without forcing them to wade through swamps of undigested data or seas of technical jargon.

But for now, let's concentrate on WHAT TO SAY. We'll get to HOW TO SAY IT in Part Three.


Here's an exercise to start you thinking about the people you write to and the responses you want from them. In the spaces below, fill in the names of three audiences you most frequently write to (individuals or groups of people). Identify people by name if you can. Include a variety of your writing tasks, such as memos, reports, proposals and journal articles:




Next, fill in the responses you want from these people. If you can, tell exactly what you expect them to do in response to your writing:




Finally, write down the responses you actually get from these audiences:




If the responses you want don't match up with the responses you actually get, then you need to pay more attention to finely tuning your message to those particular audiences.


Whenever you write, you're really selling something -- perhaps a product, yourself, or just an idea. If you're successful, you convince your readers to "buy" your product. You're happy and they're happy.

Some people, especially scientists, object to a sales approach, probably because of the bad taste that modern advertising has left in their mouths. They dislike "manipulating" people, believing that everyone should simply present his ideas in an "objective" way that leaves others "free to choose" among the possible alternatives.

Scientists and engineers, more than business people, tend to adopt a passive attitude about their work. It's as though they're saying, "I shouldn't have to sell my work; it speaks for itself. My business is knowledge, not manipulating people." Although a few scientists are able to build successful careers on this ivory-tower strategy, most soon find their advancement blocked and their work ignored unless they are able to orient their outlook toward those who might ultimately use their results.

The truth is that, unless you're a hermit, it is impossible to avoid influencing others. Everything you do has some impact on those you contact. If that impact is not well thought-out and planned, a person's response is likely to be assembled from random combinations of his predispositions and accidental details of your actions. For example, a weak, noncommittal memo to your boss might cause him to decide that you have few convictions and to ignore your ideas.

So would you rather have some random, unplanned influence or the specific influence you desire?

To get some practice designing documents for a specific audience and purpose, find a recent sample of your own professional writing and write its title here so you'll know later which one it was, if you come back to it.

Now answer the following questions about it:

1. Why did you write it?

2. What particular person or class of people was it addressed to?

3. Exactly what level of knowledge and experience does this reader have in the subject you are writing about?

4. Did you make any effort to find out exactly what your audience expected from you when you wrote this?

5. Can you form a clear picture of a particular reader and hear that reader saying something while he reads your paper? What is he saying?

6. What specifically did you want your reader to do differently as a result of reading your piece?

7. Are there any specific responses from your reader that you want to avoid?

8. What do you think it might take to get the response you want from your reader?

9. How will you know if your writing had the effect you intended; that is, what particular feedback mechanisms tell you whether your writing accomplished its objective?

10. How might you change your document to more clearly tell your reader your purpose in writing?

11. Might you have communicated the same message more efficiently, and at the same time provided for immediate feedback, by personally contacting your audience, instead of writing?

Have you ever thought specifically in these terms before you begin a writing task? I assume that when you sit down to write, you have some reason for doing so. Maybe you just feel like getting something off your chest. Or maybe your boss told you to write something. Or maybe you think it's time you recorded some result or thought for posterity. Because none of these reasons expresses a specific outcome, none is really a valid reason for writing.


In Lesson 2, I asked "Why bother to write clearly?" Here we examine a related question: Why write at all? The wrong answer to this question can get you into a trap that wastes a lot of your time and others' time too. Here are three common wrong reasons for writing:


Untold thousands of useless memos are generated every day just because people want to get something off their chest. The same can be said for many journal articles and technical reports. You can prevent this kind of waste by asking before you begin: "Is this really necessary?", "What do I want to accomplish?" or more simply, "Who cares?" Often a phone call or a personal contact will do the job, and probably better. Remember that writing deprives you of the most valuable aspect of any communication -- feedback. Whenever possible, substitute two-way personal communication for one-way writing.


Many organizations reward paper generators, both because memo and letter writers get more visibility and because report and article writing is used to measure productivity. But unless you have a better reason for writing, playing this game will eventually get you into trouble, because most of your writing will lack substance and purpose.


This may at first seem like a reasonable reason for writing, especially if you've just made some measurements or discovered something new. Many people like to imagine that their work will someday be uncovered and carried on by some later generation. Not very likely. We'll see later, however, that without the focus of a specific, well defined audience, your paper or memo can easily turn into a pointless "memory dump". Your readers will invariably ask, "So what?"

So these are all the wrong reasons for writing. They may have some therapeutic effects on you, but they won't help you get the results you want from others.


Have a clear, specific reason for writing, whether it's a landmark journal paper or just a memo to the boss. Answer the questions above before you start your next writing assignment, first of all, to help you decide if writing is really what you need to do. Then, if you do decide to write, make sure you clearly understand what you want to accomplish by doing so.

The next step in tuning your writing to your audience is creating the most logical package for your message. In other words, what is the most effective way to organize the information you have to present? Your package must be carefully designed if it is to accomplish your purpose in writing.

Alice: Will you tell me which way I ought to go from here?
Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to go.
Alice: I don't much care ...
Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn't matter which way you go.

-Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

-- End of Lesson 5 --

Beginning of Lesson 5 || Contents || Go on to Lesson 6