Writing for your readers

Posted on 12/01/2011


Sharpening your writing

Beautiful writing
(digitalart ID10043412)


When writing non-fiction, it’s essential that you give your readers top priority. You want them to understand your message as easily as possible. Often, they will stop reading if it’s all too hard.

So here are some questions for you to consider to increase the reader-friendliness of your writing.

  • Are your assumptions about your readers valid?
    •  Who exactly are your readers? Not just the person you picture as you write (perhaps your client), but also others (the client’s manager or accountant) who will need to understand your message before they can make a decision.
    • How much technical or industry knowledge do your readers have? How many technical terms can you use, or will you need to explain them?
      • Use footnotes, end-notes or a glossary for longer, formal documents;  enclosing the explanation in brackets works well in other situations.
  • What sort of language will you use?
    • Does your writing need to be formal? Or can it be more friendly?
    • Can you reduce the complexity of the information?
      •  Remember to keep the paragraph and sentence length and structure as simple as possible. Generally, the more complex the subject, the simpler the writing needs to be.
      • Breaking your writing up into small chunks (rather than long paragraphs) gives readers time to digest each piece of information before moving on to the next.
  • What will be the best way to present the content?
    • Should you start with a summary of the content? This allows those who need only the main points to understand the ‘bare bones’ of the content, while those who need to understand the details can read in full.
      •  Consider placing additional information (background material, supporting evidence, research details) into appendixes at the end of the document.
      •  Signpost the flow of your document by using a range of techniques (headings, ordered lists, underlining, bold, italics, judicious use of colour). But don’t overdo it; you risk losing their value.
    •  Will it be easier for your readers if you include tables, graphs, photos or some other graphic?
      • Let the illustration speak for itself: long explanations of the illustration are rarely helpful.
  • Have you organised your ideas in a reader-friendly way?
    • Sometimes this is the most difficult part of the writing process, but it is important. And it needs to happen before you start writing.
      •  Here’s one suggestion. On a large piece of paper or a whiteboard, write down the important points you want to make – it doesn’t matter what order they’re in at this stage. Just getting them out of your head and onto paper will allow you to see what order they should be in. Now sort the ideas into related groups, give each group a working title, then sort the groups into a logical order. Try a number of combinations, then decide what order will best suit your readers.
      •  If you’re going to use headings, the working titles of the groups will become the basis for the heading text.
  • How does the text sit on the page?
    • Use headings, consistent paragraph spacing, tables and illustrations to break the text into chunks.
    • Consistency in your format choices means your readers don’t have to decide how parts fit together.
    • Use page breaks to avoid ‘widows and orphans’ and tables that break across consecutive pages.

When you’ve written your document, put it aside for a period, then come back to it using your reader’s eyes, rather than your writer’s eyes.
Review it yourself, ask a trusted colleague or ‘outsider’ to look it over, or ask a professional editor to give it that final polish.

Remember – you write for your readers, so do all that you can to make it as easy as possible for them to read and understand what you have written.

What causes you to stop reading a blog, article, report, etc?

You’ll find more tips to sharpen your writing at www.perfectpages.net.au

Posted in: Writing