Any piece of text—be it a novel, a blog post, or a personal essay—is essentially an abstract link connecting a writer (or several of them) with an audience.
Unless the work in question is a highly unique piece of writing, such as an “eyes-only” report meant only for the CEO of a company, the audience is ideally expected to be as large as possible. Who would write the next “great American novel” wanting it to be read by a few hundred people, right?
Even on a more modest scale, blog writers understandably expect their texts to be read by as many people as possible. The same is true also for op-eds or, say, fashion articles.
But are all texts written for everyone?
The answer must be “no.” Whereas a writer of contemporary fiction or a current-affairs journalist probably writes having a fairly general audience in mind, reality is different for many other authors.
For example, if you write for a blog on aviation, intended for professional pilots, then you write for a much more narrowly defined specialist audience; ditto for, say, a blog on modern chess openings, intended for professional players.
(Let’s not even consider the size of an audience consisting of professional pilots who are also chess Grandmasters.)
For many authors, perhaps there isn’t such a great difference. After all, it’s all a matter of communicating information and arguing your opinion, right? Well, although this is technically true, it’s more complicated than that. Writing for a specialist audience entails certain risks from a writing perspective.
If you write for a specialist audience, there are dangers you need to be aware of. And, once you are, you also need to know how to circumnavigate them. But no worries! I have put together a handy list of things to keep in mind while writing for your specialist, professional audience.
In other words, being a specialist has degrees. A person can be called a specialist while still understanding less about the subject compared to another specialist.
Why is this related to our topic? Because when you write for a specialist audience, you need to aim for the average specialist within the group.
Let’s assume you write for the aviation blog I mentioned earlier. Since this is a specialist audience composed of professional pilots, you don’t need to waste any of your time (or theirs) explaining why allowing the airspeed to drop can be dangerous; every pilot knows that.
But if you wanted to talk about, say, how certain weather conditions affect the airspeed, how big a portion of your audience can you expect to be familiar with the phenomenon?
For this and any other such topic, in any specialist audience, there will be a number of people who know little or even nothing, a number of people who know something, and a number of people who are fairly knowledgeable.
Your goal as a writer is to strike a balance: make the text engaging enough for those who already know the topic well, yet offer some parenthetical remarks that—though perhaps unnecessary for some—could help those less familiar with the topic.
It’s easier said than done, perhaps. It requires a certain degree of guesswork, as you try to gauge the level of your audience. Ultimately, striking a balance comes with experience, in terms of writing as well as your own specialist expertise in the field of your chosen topic.
Just because you’re writing for a specialist audience of programmers, carpenters, or florists, you should never make the mistake of offering them anything less than stellar, top-notch writing.
True, you will probably be concentrated on explaining a difficult concept, or listing all the little parameters of a certain task. However, a text should also just be beautiful; it should make the reader—whether they’re professors of literature or builders of bridges—smile while reading your words.
It’s a practical matter, too. A well-written text is easier to read, and each argument logically leads to the next.
“But how,” you might ask, “do I make a text ‘beautiful,’ especially when it’s meant for a specialist audience?”
First of all, resist the idea of writing only for information—perhaps an inherent temptation when writing for specialist audiences. Even a pilot, a chess player, or a programmer wants to be told a story. Imagine the information as the frame of your text; it’s the central part, but in order for it to be engaging, there have to be other things around it.
So don’t hesitate to explain the hows, the whys, or the what-ifs of the information you’re delivering. If you write a post on a programming language, include some personal anecdotes, making the post more accessible.
At the same time, make sure there is a narrative progression in your text. Remember my article on narratives in business contexts? It’s all about storytelling. Deep down, your readers want to just sit by the proverbial fire and listen to an amazing story.
Of course, focusing on the textual level, don’t forget to maintain cohesion among your sentences, paragraphs, and sections. Don’t just list the information there as if it were a shopping list, and do remember to link the elements to one another.
It’s incredible how far you can go with words and phrases such as “however,” “on the other hand,” “nonetheless,” or “furthermore.” Just remember to use them sparingly—proper, natural-flowing argumentation creates cohesion by itself. It’s a matter of balance, yet again!
A quote attributed to Mark Twain—without much evidence—is “it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to talk and remove all doubt.” It’s a lovely quote, useful in many contexts.
But not when writing for a specialist audience.
Trust me when I say this, but few things can paralyze you and hurt your writing more than the fear of being wrong. I’ve seen this happen often in the academic world.
Imagine this scenario: You’re a humble student who needs to submit a thesis on a given subject. Not only is this paper expected to include commentary and criticism of established specialists in the field, but it will be judged by your professors, too. How can anyone cope with that?
The truth is, feedback and criticism are part of the process. You can improve neither as a writer nor as a specialist in your field if you don’t first see what works and what doesn’t. Good decisions come with experience, which comes with bad decisions.
So try not to focus on the possibility that you might say something wrong, or that someone from your specialist audience might prove to be more knowledgeable than you. In fact, there is an overwhelming chance that this will actually be the case.
As I mentioned earlier, being a specialist is not a binary condition. Just as your audience consists of specialists of various levels of competency, you as a specialist author are probably somewhere in the middle. Unless you are among the geniuses of your field, there will statistically be many people who will know less, and also quite a few who will know more.
And that’s fine.
It isn’t a problem to have someone offer a counter-argument to your text; you should welcome it. You will then learn something new, which you can include in your next text.
Of course, being careful with your research is pivotal to producing an impactful text. You should make every effort to double-check your sources and your arguments. But in no way should you allow your doubts to hold you back.
It’s a matter of finding the balance between ignoring and listening to your inner critic.
Part of writing for a specialist audience is about knowledge, information, and progress in a given field. But perhaps an equal, or at least a significant, part is about belonging to a community of like-minded individuals.
In the phrase “writing for a specialist audience,” the word “specialist” revolves around the former—knowledge, information, and progress—whereas “writing” revolves around the latter.
In particular, writing for (and its associated pair, reading by) a specialist audience is about communication and belonging. Remember the proverbial fire we talked about earlier—ultimately, readers want to just sit by it and listen to an amazing story.
Pilots talk about pilot stuff; chess players about chess stuff. And the author’s job, besides adding to the body of knowledge in the field, is to nurture this camaraderie.
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops Android apps focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general. Chris is a content editor for Craft Your Content.