Writing Well: Different Strokes for Different Folks

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Write Angles

What happens if you have to cover two or more different subject areas in the same document? Which audience should you write for? If you try to satisfy everyone, you'll satisfy no one, so play the numbers and aim for the primary audience.

Every area of study has its own way of looking at the world, and that is how it should be. For example, a musician and a nuclear physicist look at sound very differently; a chemist and a cook rarely regard a pot roast in the same light. To prove my point, here's the same topic as approached by writers in two different areas. The first writer is an historian; the second writer, a geologist.

From the pen of the historian:

  • Earthquakes can be so deadly that entire cities can be eradicated from the face of the earth. That's exactly what happened in A.D. 365 on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, when an earth quake measuring 7 on the Richter scale destroyed the city of Kourion and much of Cyprus. The destruction was so massive that the remains of the city were not even discovered until 1934, more than 1,500 years after the event had taken place. That year, the American archaeologist J.F. Daniel unearthed the remains of a Roman house. He found structural remains, debris, and skeletons. The massive earthquake hit at sunrise, before most people had awakened. It was followed by an enormous tsunami, traveling at about 500 miles per hour. Thousands of residents of the city of Kourion appear to have been killed instantly.

From the pen of the geologist:

Author! Author!

Concern for audience (and propriety) reached absurd heights during the Victorian era, when the author of Lady Gough's Book of Etiquette advised Victorians with a home library to avoid placing books by married male authors next to those by female authors, and vice versa.

  • The intensity of an earthquake can be measured quantitatively on one of two scales. The more common is the Richter scale, which measures the energy released at the focus of a quake. A logarithmic scale, it runs from 1 to 9; a magnitude 9 quake is 10 times more powerful than a magnitude 7 quake, 100 times more powerful than a magnitude 4 quake, and so on. An estimated 800 earthquakes of magnitude 5 to 6 as measured on the Richter scale occur annually, in comparison to about 50,000 earthquakes of magnitude 3 to 4 and only one earthquake of magnitude 8 to 9. The other scale, introduced at the turn of the twentieth century by the Italian seismologist Guiseppi Mercalli, measures the intensity of the shaking with gradations from I to XII. The Mercalli rating assigned to an earthquake depends on the site of the measurement, since seismic surface effects diminish with distance from the focus of the earthquake. An earthquake of intensity I is felt by few people; intensity XII, in contrast, denotes catastrophic earthquakes. Events measured I to II are roughly equivalent to earthquakes of magnitude 3 to 4 on the Richter scale, while earthquakes that measure XI to XII on the Mercalli scale correlate to earthquakes in the 8 to 9 range on the Richter scale.

As you can see, the same subject can vary greatly when written for a different audience. The first paragraph concentrates on the impact of an earthquake on one ancient city. The second paragraph, in contrast, centers on two ways to measure the impact of an earthquake. In the second passage, there's no mention of any specific human involvement, since the writer focuses on quantifying the experience.

Border Disputes

Further, many types of writing blur the boundaries between curriculum areas. Henry David Thoreau's classic guide to good living, Walden, could be considered social science, humanities, and botany. The following excerpt might fall into all these categories and economics, too. How would you classify the passage?

But to be more particular, for it is complained that Mr. Coleman has reported chiefly the expensive experiments of gentlemen farmers, my outgoes were,
For a hoe $0 54
Ploughing, harrowing, and furrowing 7 50 Too much.
Beans for seed 3 12 1/2
Potatoes 1 33
Peas 0 40
Turnip seed 0 06
White line for crow fence 0 02
Horse cultivator and boy three hours 1 00
Horse and cart to get crop 0 75
In all $14 72 1/2

Thoreau follows this balance sheet with a list of his income and a calculation of his profit.

It's plain that the four types of writing—exposition, narration, argumentation, and description—still apply to writing across the curriculum. See? Writing across the curriculum isn't anything very new from what you've already learned. In addition, it's often a matter of format and vocabulary that shapes writing across the curriculum, not a different kind of writing.

Let's look at techniques you can use as you write across the curriculum, starting with establishing a bond with your audience.

One Size Doesn't Fit All!

As you've learned, each subject area has its own specific writing style and slant; however, all subjects overlap to some degree. The following table shows some of the similarities and differences among the various curricula.

Alike Different
Has set purpose Follows rules of subject area
Aimed at a specific audience May follow specific format
Has a clear thesis Uses specialized language
Is well-organized Tone suits specific subject
Uses details and examples May use passive voice (science)
Has an effective style Uses correct documentation style

Mix 'n' Match

So what types of writing will you be called on to produce? Here's the run-down on each subject area and the most common writing tasks:

Subject AreaCommon Writing Tasks
   flyers, brochures
   performance appraisals
 press releases
 reports resums and cover letters
Humanities (literature, language, philosophy, religion, etc.)reaction papers
term and research papers
literary interpretations
Social Sciences (sociology, political science, psychology, education, economics)term and research papers
case studies
Natural Sciences (medicine, engineering, geology, physics, computer science, astronomy, biology, chemistry)reports
critical reviews
book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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