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

Lesson 7

How to Handle All Those Details


In this Lesson:

Here you'll learn how to communicate details efficiently. This means giving your audience exactly the amount of detail they need -- no more, no less -- and in the order they expect.


In sharp contrast with the other kinds of writing you learned about in school, the essence or "beef" of scientific and technical writing lies in its details. But no one wants all the details, and besides, you can't include all the relevant facts anyway. So how effective and informative your technical writing is depends critically on how you select, reject and arrange details. Too many, and you put your readers to sleep. Too few, and you leave them uninformed. Put them in the wrong order, and you leave them confused.

You have to answer three questions about details when you write:

How much detail?
Which details?
How to rank details?

To answer these questions, you obviously have to know something about your readers. (Remember the top-down approach?) Specifically:

Who am I writing for?
What are they looking for?

Suppose, for example, that you want to write a paper on some recent scientific results. Here are some possible audiences for your paper:

1. Your boss
2. Scientific peers
3. Specialists in your field
4. The general public
5. Potential users of your result
6. Scientific administrators
7. Congressmen
8. Students

Naturally, the audience you select will determine not only your choice of details, but also your publication medium.


When you start thinking about the different possible audiences for your writing, you should notice that there is an inverse relation between the size of your audience and the amount of detail that is appropriate. In other words, the largest audience gets the least amount of detail, and vice-versa. Is that obvious? Maybe not. Here's an exercise that should clarify the principle.

How much detail about an automobile would you expect to see in each of these publications? Put number 1 next to the one that would have the least amount of detail and so on, up to number 6 for the one with the most detail.

a Motor Trend magazine ad

the manufacturer's engineering specifications

a showroom brochure

the owner's manual

a TIME magazine ad

the shop manual

Now go down the list again and add a second number to each box that tells how big the audience is for each document. Put a 1 next to the one with the largest audience and so on, up to number 6 for the one with the smallest audience.

If you did it right, you should end up with the same numbers paired up next to each document, or be off by no more than one.

Now do you see how the amount of detail is related to the size of the audience? If you have a specific person in mind as your audience, and if you are able to place yourself in his position, you should be able to evaluate every detail by asking how much he wants to know about it. One way to do this is to start out by listing your details (just some key words) and scoring them according to the level of interest you think your audience has in each. If your interest score goes from 1 to 10, cut out the items that score less than 4 or 5.

If your imagined audience has little or no interest in a particular detail, leave it out, even if it represents years of your hard work.


Here's an exercise to clarify the connection between specific details and the audience you have in mind.

Below I've listed a collection of details about a research project you have just completed on thunderstorms. Imagine that you're having a conversation with each of the 8 audiences listed above. What information about thunderstorms might each ask you for? As you go down the two lists, write in the blank spaces in front of each detail the numbers that correspond to the audiences that you think would score that detail at least a 7 (on a scale of 1 to 10):


The dollar damage caused by thunderstorms each year.

A history of your previous research on thunderstorms.

Descriptions of calibration procedures for your instruments.

Some basic physics of how thunderstorms work.

How much your project costs.

A log of all your measurements during the whole project.

A list of everyone who worked on the project.

Specifications of a new instrument to measure hail size.

A new result showing a connection between lightning intensity and total rainfall.

A new result showing how to suppress hail.

New insights into the flow patterns around thunderstorms.

Procedures you used to avoid statistical biases in your data.

Your plans for further measurements.

Your recommendations for future research.

Now, imagine that you are writing, in turn, to each of those 8 audiences. Go down the list of details and notice which ones are the most interesting to each audience. Those are the details you would most likely emphasize in the early sentences you would write to those audiences. Notice also which details you could leave out or relegate to subordinate roles.


Now that you have coded each detail according to the audiences it appeals to, make 8 lists, one for each audience, in which you write out the top four details that you want to present to each audience. In addition, rank the details by putting the most important one (to that audience) first, and so in. The list you come up with for each audience is the order you would present these details if you were writing to that audience.

1. Your boss

2. Scientific peers

3. Specialists in your field

4. The general public

5. Potential users of your result

6. Scientific administrators

7. Congressmen

8. Students

Take the same paper or report you used to answer the questions about your audience in Lesson 3. Make a list of key words or phrases that describe all the details you have reported. Now rank those details according to how interested you think your audience is in those details. Throw out the bottom half. Now compare that list with the details that actually appeared in your paper or report.


Select your details by ranking them according to your the interest level you expect your audience to have in them, then throw away the ones with low scores. Present the remaining ones in order of decreasing interest.

The next lesson contains checklists for specific writing tasks, to help you be sure that you answer all the questions your readers are likely to have.

-- End of Lesson 7 --

Beginning of Lesson 7 || Contents || Go on to Lesson 8