Write for your reader, right for you.
Good writers consider their audience; bad writers don’t—it’s the first principle of effective writing. Here’s a lively summary of why your audience matters and how to work out what they want from experienced writer and editor, Bev Sullivan. I hope you enjoy it.
I’ve been helping people with their writing skills for more than 20 years. I’m a trainer, a coach, an editor, a proofreader, and a writer.
The most common error I come across (apart from misuse of apostrophes—don’t get me started) is that people don’t write for their readers. Ask yourself:
- Would you swear at your grandma?
- Would you use technical, complicated words to tell a toddler to stop poking things into a PowerPoint?
- Would you yell abuse at someone you wanted a favour from?
If you answered yes to any of those, don’t bother reading on. You’d swear at your granny? Seriously?
Most of us modify the way we talk when we’re doing it face to face or over the phone. So why don’t we do it when we write?
- Well, there are many reasons:
- We’re busy, so we just dash off a few lines and hit send.
- We are concentrating so hard on getting the content right, we don’t have the energy to think about anything or anyone else.
- We hate writing, so we just go through the motions.
- We don’t care.
Writing isn’t easy. But if we don’t invest time, energy, thought and care, we often end up having to do it again or do lots more of it. We (or someone else) have to fix it.
Here are three steps to help you to think about your reader and make your writing work—the first time:
Step 1 – Ask yourself what you want your reader to do
You may want them to:
- fill in a form
- give you some information
- follow a process
- pay something
- do something
- do something differently • stop worrying
- be impressed
- be inspired
- be deterred
- agree with you
- stop writing back.
Based on your knowledge of the person (or people like them), what sorts of things would convince/persuade/encourage them to do what you want them to do?
Some things will work for almost anyone. For example, if you want someone to fill in a form or follow a process, your instructions should be clear and easy to follow. If you want someone to stop writing back, either give them what they want or make it obvious that A. They won’t get it, or B. The cost of pursuing it will be too high for them.
Other things need to be tailored to a specific person. For example, if they’re worried, why are they worried, and what are the underlying issues? If they’re not doing something, why aren’t they doing it?
Step 2 – Choose your language to suit your reader
Use words that don’t make your reader feel confused, patronised, or excluded.
Technical terms bully their way into text and sit there, daring you to do something about them. Bureaucratic phrases like ‘in respect of your’ and ‘with reference to’ sidle in and look smug. Acronyms pounce when you’re not looking, and buzz words bustle in importantly and take up far too much space.
Challenge them all. Question every single one of them. Make them justify their space in your writing. If they don’t add value, ditch them.
Use words your reader will understand, and use sentences and paragraphs that end before the reader runs out of interest and the will to live.
If you want your reader to do something, make it easy for them to understand it, and do it.
Step 3 – Be your reader
While you’ve been writing, if you’ve been doing it right, you’ve been thinking about your reader—how they’ll react to what you’ve just written, how much they already know, how they’ll respond to the question you asked, and whether they’ll understand your instructions. You should have a sense of who they are.
Once you’ve finished writing, take a break (of at least 30 minutes) then come back and read through what you’ve written, as if you are the person you’re writing to:
- If they’re a busy or impatient person, scan it quickly, looking for what stands out (particularly the start, the end, and the beginning of each paragraph).
- If they’re a worried person, read every word, looking for possible threats.
- If they have a one-track mind, focus only on their obsession. (They’ll probably ignore the rest of it anyway.)
- How are they likely to react to it? If you think it’ll work as it is, proofread it and you’re good to go. If you don’t, do some more work.
This WriteBusiness website includes the sentence ‘Writing is an act of care for the reader’.
Clever writing is also an act of care for you, the writer. The effort you put into writing well will save you a lot of time in the future.
Write for your reader. Get it right the first time.
And don’t swear at your grandmother.