Dr. Karen A. Schriver
Clear Writing for Expert and Lay Audiences:
Evidence-based Strategies from Plain Language and Information Design
Professionals who want to compete in today’s global economy need more than subject-matter expertise. They need skill in writing for expert and lay audiences. Some budding professionals receive formal education in writing for audiences of knowledgeable peers (such as other lawyers, doctors, teachers or engineers). Even so, their training typically omits strategies for reaching audiences outside of their field. Without a sense of what audiences expect from writing, professionals face a kind of psychological guessing game. Inappropriate assumptions about the audience often result in writing that misses the reader’s needs. In fact, many texts are never read but merely skimmed. Confronted by writing that is poorly organized, unclear, or burdened by professional jargon, most readers simply give up. Lack of clarity frustrates audiences—whether they are experienced or inexperienced in the subject matter. Importantly, lack of clarity thwarts professionals’ good intentions with complexity, ambiguity and confusion. Writing clearly for expert and lay audiences is a complex task. It requires developing empathy for what audiences need. It means transforming one’s knowledge for the reader and making multimodal choices that show understanding. It involves integrating word and image to fit the needs of the audience and the context. Recent research suggests ways that professionals can take rhetorical action to create more effective communications. This talk will overview the highlights of an extensive review of the empirical evidence on what we have learned about readers’ cognitive and sociocultural needs for professional writing. It will identify evidence-based strategies to meet readers’ needs by drawing on the intertwined fields of plain language writing and information design.