Learning Outcomes

  • Apply and adapt professional and technical writing conventions, including genre, tone, and style for particular writing situations.
  • Identify professional and technical genres, organization strategies, and appropriate tone and style
  • Analyze audience while creating various professional/technical documents with a sophisticated awareness of audience as a reader and writer
  • Identify some habits of successful proposal writers
  • Analyze how and why audience awareness is a key component for successful writers

Learning Outcomes

  • Understand various methods for researching your target audience
  • Employ the best research method for the document you want to produce
  • Composeprofessional/technical documents and oral presentations for multiple audiences and specific purposes by using current technologies.
  • Social and Cultural Contexts.
  • Apply and adapt professional/technical writing conventions, including genre, tone, and style for particular writing situations.
  • Under 18
  • 18-25
  • 26-35
  • 36-55
  • Over 55
  • Television commercial
  • Online advertisement
  • Print advertisement
  • Word of mouth
  • Other (please specify): _____________

It is important to consider your audience when writing a technical communication document.  Categories like race, class, and gender, also known as demographics, can contribute to the way a person perceives a particular issue or document. Other important audience traits to consider are level of familiarity with the subject matter, knowledge of terminology, and educational background. These factors can help you determine what information your audience needs, what questions you should ask them, and how much jargon (field-specific language) you should use. However, keep in mind that, while demographic categories are helpful in determining your target audience, people should always be treated as individuals. Avoid stereotyping by considering that there are always exceptions to the general rule.

So, how does one determine an audience’s demographics, and, therefore, an audience’s needs?  There are several common research methods for distinguishing your target audience:

Library and Internet Research

You can do some preliminary research before interacting with your target audience.  The library and internet can provide many resources for gathering information from studies that have already been conducted, including census reports and other public records, scholarly and trade journals, and official websites for professional organizations and government departments. You can find an annotated list of useful library and internet resources by Amy Coughenour on Writing Commons. It includes the Bureau of Labor Statistics from the U. S. Department of Labor website, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the National Center for Education Statistics.  These resources provide a helpful starting point for researching an audience in a given area. Community forums are also helpful in gauging the opinions of a particular audience. Municipal websites and local newspaper websites often feature community forums or message boards where residents discuss issues that are important to them.

Because library and internet research yield so many resources, you should learn to check the credibility of your sources. First, determine the place or organization that published the source. Is it a prestigious press, university, or professional association? This will get easier as you become more familiar with the top publications in your field, but until you do, a helpful tip is to analyze the document’s design. Generally, but not always, credible sources are presented cleanly and concisely. Also, check the source’s citations. A credible source will usually cite other credible sources. If you are researching empirical data, consider the methods used to collect the data.  Does the report describe the process? Is the data current? Remember that in the fields of health, science, and business, new discoveries occur often and replace old data. Recent publications are, therefore, often more credible than older ones.

Field Research

Field research relies on direct observation and interaction. This includes surveys, interviews, and focus groups, as well as observing your intended audience or subject in context. For example, if you are hired by a hospital to help improve patient communication, you might observe, with permission, some interactions between patients and nurses or doctors. When conducting field research, you should triangulate your data. This means that you should collect your data from multiple sources and observers to ensure accuracy.  A single observation of a single subject may not accurately represent the norm or group. Some examples of field research are:


Surveys are particularly useful in providing statistics about demographics and answering specific questions directed towards your audience.  You can ask straightforward questions about race, gender, beliefs, attitudes, etc. For example, you might ask respondents to select their racial identity from a list of choices.  You may also need to ask deeper questions, such as what kind of medications respondents are currently taking. When asking more complex questions, carefully consider the response options and what is implied in the language you use. Keep in mind that the respondents are limited to the options you provide. 

A straightforward survey question might ask the respondent’s age with these options:

A more complex survey question might include an “other” option for additional responses:

Ex: How did you learn about our services?

As with all documents, make sure the survey questions avoid offensive language and are culturally sensitive. For example, if you are researching the level of comfort patients experience in a particular hospital you should avoid a question like “When the nurse comes in, does she always greet you first?” Some respondents might take offense to the assumption that a nurse must be female, so try rephrasing the question to be more gender-neutral: “Does the nurse greet you when he or she enters the room?”

Surveys save time because, although you have to prepare them, people can usually fill them out independently.  However, you may want to reserve time for follow-up conversations, especially because survey respondents have limited answer choices.  If you choose to do this, make sure you provide your contact information in the survey or solicit respondents’ contact information (along with permission to contact them). Independently completed surveys often have a low return rate, so consider how widely you want to spread the survey.  Finally, because surveys often reach a large number of people, it may be difficult to determine whether the results truly reflect the views of your target audience.

For more information on surveys, see The Community Tool Box at the University of Kansas(http://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/assessment/assessing-community-needs-and-resources/conduct-surveys/main). 


Interviews are a more qualitative research approach because answers are more personal and open-ended.  While they can yield more information than the simple “yes/no” questions of a survey, answers represent the particular perspective of the interviewee.  You also have a much smaller sample because of the amount of time it takes to conduct interviews. Prepare your questions ahead of time; you should prepare more than you are likely to need and avoid the “yes/no” questions usually reserved for surveys. For example, instead of asking a participant if he or she sleeps for a full eight hours every night, you might receive more precise results by asking how many hours of sleep he or she receives on average. Be prepared with follow-up questions to different possible responses and expect to be engaged in a conversation with the interviewee. If the participant replies that he or she gets very little sleep on average, you might then ask about his or her daily routine or work schedule.

Focus Groups

Focus groups are interviews conducted with a small group of people at the same time.  You should create a comfortable setting to encourage participants to interact not only with you, but with each other. Participants should be free to discuss their opinions, but a moderator should keep them on task and initiate conversation.  The moderator should also mitigate any hostility between personalities and conclude the session within 1-2 hours. You should conduct a few focus groups for any given project to ensure reliable sampling.

Each of these methods has its merits and challenges, and the method you choose to use should depend on the context of your project. For example, focus groups and interviews may be a better choice when you have already narrowed down your target audience. Often, the process of producing a document for a specific audience will require a combination of these methods. You might begin with library or internet research to learn about an area’s demographics, and then conduct interviews with people who actually use the product about which you are creating a pamphlet.


Choose the best audience research method (this may be one or a combination) for each scenario and explain your decision:

A (health sciences)

  1. You are creating a pamphlet describing the benefits and side effects of a pill that helps lower cholesterol. Your employer is the pharmaceutical company that produces the pill. They have supplied the data, but you need to present it clearly to users and potential users of the medication.
  2. You are designing a computer patient information system for a hospital and want to know how to make it most efficient for doctors, nurses, and staff.
  3. You want to research the demographics of an area surrounding a new medical center to determine what services would be most useful.
  4. You have developed a new user manual for a printer, and you want to find out if it is helpful to users of the product.
  5. You need to research a city’s traffic patterns to decide exactly where to install signs and directions towards a newly constructed bridge.
  6. You have developed a tutorial for a new computer software program, and want to determine its usefulness to users.
  7. You are creating a handout for a meeting that you will run with a colleague, and you want to make sure you list all major talking points for the both of you.
  8. You are producing a report on your company’s financial standing for potential investors.
  9. You are giving a presentation on your company’s latest product to an audience of potential buyers. You want to research their needs in addition to providing proof of the product’s success with other groups.

B (engineering)

C (professional/business writing)


Heifferon, B. A. (2005). Writing in the Health Professions. New York, NY: Pearson Education.

University of Kansas Community Tool Box (n.d.). Section 13: Conducting Surveys. Chapter 3:Assessing Community Needs and Resources. Learn a Skill. Retrieved from:


When applying for jobs, a well-written cover letter is just as important as a well-written resume. While the resume is designed to provide an overview of your relevant skills and qualifications, the cover letter is your opportunity to discuss relevant experiences, connect those experience to qualities and qualifications from the job ad, and to display your personality to your reader. In other words, the cover letter is your chance to humanize yourself to your reader and to give the reader a sense of who you are and why you’re uniquely qualified for a particular position.

On Wooing Your Audience (Or Not)

Imagine for a moment that you’re in the market for a new significant other. Well, good news: your friend, Imma MutualFriend, claims that she knows your perfect match and tells you all about this person. From what you’re told about this match, you’re interested too. Imma promises to connect you two soon.

Flash forward, and the time comes for you to meet this supposed match. At a party, Imma points you in their direction. With the goal of wooing this person with all of your wonderful qualifications, you approach your match.

Compiling a résumé can feel like a daunting task. Just like essay writing, résumé creation works well as a process. Before worrying about the format of the résumé and where to place everything in a document, consider beginning by compiling an informal list of past and present work experience and education. Once you have a first draft, look at résumés in the field you are applying to, since every field has different standards and preferences. Remember: there are no one-size-fits all résumés. The key to constructing a polished résumé is tailoring your experience to the job to which you’re applying.

Writing Cover Letters

When reading cover letters, the key benchmark I use is simple: Do I get to know both the person and the professional? As we read a cover letter, we should have a sense that no other candidate could have written this particular document in this particular way. Hence, we respect and honor the individual.

In conversation, the term “cover letter” is used loosely to mean any professional letter that you write in an attempt to get a job, with the term “cover” denoting that the letter is usually a “cover piece” designed to introduce and accompany your resume. Thus, too many writers think of the cover letter as mere mechanical introductory fluff—disposable goods—when in fact it can be more important than your resume.

The best tip that I have heard on cover letter writing is that the letter is for the audience, not for you. Certainly you are selling yourself, but you do that best by molding your skills to what an employer needs and by knowing all that you can about your audience. This tells you that you should visit a company’s website, read the company literature, and have a specific person’s name and title to write to (you can always request this by phone or e-mail before you write). In sum, know what your audience is interested in and how you might fit into a company’s plans, not the other way around. Unless an employer instructs you otherwise, always include a cover letter with your resume as you apply for a job.

Tone: Making it Sound Good

  • The proper tone for the cover letter is one of an informed, straightforward, courteous, relaxed, literate writer.
  • Use “I” comfortably as a sentence subject, but avoid being too informal—overusing contractions or jargon could make you appear unprofessional.
  • Avoid being too cocky, aggressive, idealistic, or unrealistic; come off as mature, self-aware, and confident.

Appearance and Mechanics: Making it Look Good

  • Limit cover letters to one page, and type them using single-spaced or 1.5-spaced typing, with about one-inch margins or more on all sides of the page.
  • Skip lines between paragraphs.
  • Favor short paragraphs over long ones.
  • Use highly readable, tight, fonts, such as Helvetica or Times, and point sizes no larger than 12 and no smaller than 10.
  • Spell check, then proofread the hard copy carefully. Present the final version of the letter on durable white or off-white paper.
  • Mail your letter and resume flat in a large envelope rather than folded in a small one.  That way they will be easier to read and Xerox.

The Heading and Greeting: Following the Formats

  • At the top right or left corner of the page, type your address, your phone number, your e-mail address, and the date. Below that, at the left margin, put the name, title, and address of the person receiving the letter.
  • Skip a line or two, then type “Dear,” the person’s title (Dr., Ms., Mr.), name, and a colon.
  • If possible, find out the proper title, spelling, and gender of the receiver of the letter (all it usually takes is a phone call or a little web surfing). If you cannot be certain of the recipient’s gender, it is acceptable to use both the first and last name (i.e., “Dear Jan Morris”). If no name is available, use a logical title such as “Dear Human Resources Representative.” Greetings such as “Dear Sir or Madam” and “To Whom it May Concern” are old-fashioned—some even find them offensive—and should be avoided.

The Opening Paragraph: Showcasing Your Homework

  • Ideally, open with a reference to how you derived knowledge of the company or position.
  • If possible, provide context by some artful name dropping (“Ms. Judith Sowers, a Quality Control Specialist in your Meredith plant, informs me that you are seeking . . .”). Otherwise, simply be forthright about why you are writing the letter (“I am writing to you because . . .”).
  • Include particulars about the company’s activities and vision—prove that you have done your homework and know something about the company’s products and mission. Even quote a mission statement if you can.
  • Establish your own professional context by naming your major and school.

The Body Paragraphs: Selling your Skills

  • One paragraph may suffice here, but use more if necessary, especially if you have several different skills or experiences to sell. Stick to one topic per paragraph.
  • Through concrete examples, provide evidence of your work ethic and success—cite courses, co-ops, papers, projects, theses, or internships you have completed. Make your examples both quantitative and qualitative. Some writers use a bulleted list to introduce narrative examples of their skills. Some even provide URLs for their home pages or other web pages they helped to create.
  • Introduce your resume (“As the enclosed resume shows . . .”) and interpret it for your audience rather than simply repeat its details. Apply your education, work experience, and activities directly to the job, proving that you are a highly capable candidate.

The Closing Paragraph and Signoff: Exiting Gracefully

  • Keep your closing short and simple. Do not waste time. Be gracious and sincere, not falsely flattering nor pushy. Respectfully indicate your desire for further action, reminding the company of your availability.
  • Remembering that a company could try to call you over a break or during the summer, indicate relevant phone numbers right in the text. Provide your e-mail address as well.
  • Under the final paragraph, skip a line or two, then, directly under your heading address, type “Sincerely,” then handwrite and type your name beneath.
  • Indicate that a resume is included along with the letter by typing the word “Enclosure” at the left margin near the bottom of the page.


"Writing Cover Letters" was written by Joe Schall, The Pennsylvania State University, as a part of Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences' OER initiative and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


More Advanced, More Daring Résumés

Even though technical fields favor conventional and old-school rules, many students, particularly those with extensive experience or a diverse background, stretch the limits slightly—and smartly—when creating their résumés. Creative format and content choices on your résumé certainly are permitted, as long as they enhance rather than detract from utility and appearance.

Creative Format Choices

Although format must remain accessible so the eye can readily scan the résumé both horizontally and vertically, creative format choices such as the following can enhance résumé content:

  • Jazzing up the heading. If nowhere else, many writers give the heading of the résumé a bit more dazzle by using different fonts and sizes, perhaps even drawing a line or using an underscore beneath the heading that crosses the entire page.
  • Experimenting with tabs and margins. By experimenting with format options for the entire document or for portions, you can change margin settings in order to get more information onto a particular line or onto the entire page. Informal tables and the use of tabs also economize on space. Still, aesthetically, avoid using less than one-inch margins at the page’s edge or more than three different indentations within a single line.
  • Providing visual emphasis. Obviously, capitalization, boldface, underscore, and italics enhance both the appearance and hierarchy of information on the résumé. Beware, though, of graphic overkill, and keep in mind the intuitive hierarchy we employ as readers: Capitals and boldface typically represent important information, while underscore and italics imply subordinate material.
  • Using a résumé template. Résumé templates, which tend to offer a variety of fonts, preset fields for blocks of text, and even sample text itself, can certainly make a résumé look pretty. Keep in mind, however, that résumé templates do have constraints in format, they often put categories into a different order than they would be on an undergraduate résumé, and the resulting résumé may not be suited to the conventions of your field. If using a template, be sure you manage résumé content and appearance in a way that suits your circumstances and keeps you in charge of form.

Creating Special Sections                                     

One way to elevate your résumé is through difference. Special sections highlighting specific traits that employers seek can make your résumé rise above the crowd. Typical approaches writers take include the following:

  • Creating a special section based on specialized experience. Common special categories include “Leadership Experience,” “Military Service,” “Professional Qualifications,” “Communication Skills,” “Teaching Experience,” and “Research Experience.”
  • Taking a “skills” approach. Drawing from the model typically used in post-graduate professional résumés, some writers open the body of the résumé with a “Skills Summary” or similarly titled section, detailing their skills and how they acquired them.  A common strategy is to think both quantitatively (“Four years of experience programming computers using . . .”) and qualitatively (“Superior customer relations skills acquired through . . .”). The skills approach can go beyond simply one section, with other section titles including the word “skills” and work experience descriptions focusing on the skills acquired. The focus should be on outcomes and personal and professional attributes that would apply to any job performed, regardless of your field of study.


"More Advanced, More Daring Résumés" was written by Joe Schall, The Pennsylvania State University, as a part of Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences' OER initiative and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License