As a technical writer, you seldom write in a vacuum. For whatever type of document you’re writing, there is a designated Target Audience.
Depending on the assignment, the target audience can be very broad: everyone who buys a Harper’s Handy Home Widget, or it can be very specific: aerospace mold makers using a TRF-3 Tri-axel Reciprocating Fulminator. When you write, you must write to a defined target audience.
The easiest target audience to write for is the most clearly and narrowly defined one. As the target audience becomes less specific, the tech writer’s job becomes more difficult.
General Characteristics of a Target Audience
Every target audience shares common characteristics. Normally, your client knows what those characteristics are and gives them to you. In some rare cases, you may need to research the target audience to discover what makes it a target. Some common, shared characteristics are:
You’ll notice that these are the same characteristics taken into consideration by marketing companies. For the tech writer, though, there are other characteristics that may be even more important than these.
Specific Characteristics of a Target Audience
When writing procedures it’s important that you understand what the target audience already knows about the subject. From that, you can decide at what level you need to begin and how much information you need to supply.
In the case of a common, household appliance, such as a toaster, you can tell from the manufacturer’s target market who the target audience is likely to be. If the product is going to be sold in the US in large department and appliance stores, you can pretty safely assume that the people who buy it already know what a toaster is, what it does, and how to use it. They know it’s an electrical device that has to be plugged into a 110v outlet. If it’s like most toasters, it has a slot for each slice of bread and a control of some sort that determines how well done the toast is. Obviously, you don’t spend much time on these elements.
If the toaster has a setting for toasting only one side of bagels and English muffins, you want to be sure that the user knows about this feature and how to use it. Not all toasters have settings for frozen waffles or tarts. This needs to be clearly explained.
What you’re doing is deciding what the user already knows and what he or she will need to be taught. Of course, there are the standard Warnings and Disclaimers that are usually written as though the user was either five-years-old or a complete idiot.
On the other end of the scale is writing for a very narrow or specialized audience. Again, the client should supply you with information. But whether that happens or not, it’s your job to find out the salient characteristics of the target audience. You need to ask:
Fortunately, that’s often easier the more specialized the target audience is.
If you’re writing about an improved model of a testing device, you can probably assume that the technician using it is already trained in the subject and has experience using the current device. Unless the operation is significantly different, the focus will be on how the new model is different from the old model.
The same standards apply regardless of what type of material you’re writing. You’ll write a technical report or a brochure depending on who’s going to read it. It’s only after you have a clear understanding of who the target audience is that you can begin to plan the approach and develop the content for any writing assignment.