Write with the Reader in Mind!

This article is suitable for science & engineering students

All communication involves two parties: the sender of the message and the receiver; in written communication, they are the writer and the reader. If you write with the reader in mind you are more likely to communicate successfully. To fix this concept in your mind, I will introduce two analogies from electrical engineering with which you must be familiar:

  1. The maximum power transfer theorem: [1, p 432] The transfer of power from a source to a load is maximum if the load impedance is the complex conjugate of the source impedance (see the figure below). The matching of source and load impedances for maximum power transfer to occur is analogous to matching the writer’s technique to the reader’s expectations for maximum communication to occur.
  2. There are no reflections on an ideal, lossless transmission line if it is terminated with a load that is equal to the characteristic impedance of the transmission line [2, p 355].

The reflections at the end of a transmission line are like the reader’s confusion at what the writer intended to convey; such confusion is minimized again by matching what the reader expects with what the writer provides.

Gopen and Swan [3] have written an excellent article introducing scientific method into scientific writing. They claim that readers have certain implicit expectations about what  to encounter and when, each time they read a sentence. If the writer matches these expectations, communication takes place easily; otherwise confusion or misinterpretation results. They exhort the writer to write so as to match the reader’s expectations. The reader should not waste the effort that would go into understanding the substance of the writing, in trying to guess what the writer intended to mean. Although they warn that “there can be no fixed algorithm for good writing”, they give seven sound generic guidelines that are worth re-stating here [3]:

  1. Follow a grammatical subject with its verb, as soon as possible.
  2. Place in the position of importance (stress position) the “new information” you want the reader to emphasize in his or her mind.
  3. Place the person or thing whose story is being told at the beginning of a sentence in the topic position.
  4. Place appropriate “old information” (material discussed earlier) in the topic position to provide linkage with what has gone before and context for what is to come later.
  5. Make clear the action of every clause or sentence in its verb.
  6. Provide context for your reader before asking him or her to consider anything new.
  7. Match the emphasis conveyed by the substance with the emphasis anticipated by the reader from the structure.

In summary, match the reader’s expectations by constructing sentences skilfully. Lead the reader from the known to the unknown. Write with the reader in mind: this is usually the examiner, but do not forget the poor student who gets to continue your project the next year. If your thesis is not clear enough, he/she may be condemned to repeat your work before making further progress, losing valuable time in the process.


  1. M. E. Van Valkenburg, Network Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, USA: Prentice-Hall, 3rd ed., 1974.
  2. B. P. Lathi, Signals, Systems and Communication. New York, USA: John Wiley & Sons, 1965.
  3. G. D. Gopen and J. A. Swan, “The science of scientific writing,” American Scientist, vol. 78, pp. 550–558, 1990.
  4. Chandrasekhar, R. (2002). How to write a thesis: A working guide. (pp. 9). The University of Western Australia.
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