Readers faced with pages of text broken only by paragraph spaces will probably feel overwhelmed and stop reading. As a nonfiction writer, you have information that you need to share with your readers. So it makes sense to make it as easy as possible for them to continue reading and to understand what you are saying.
Headings serve multiple purposes in helping your readers by
breaking the text into reader-friendly chunks
providing signposts for your readers to keep them mindful of the structure of your work
helping you promote your argument.
As a technical writer, your aim is to lead your readers to reach the same conclusion that you have. Headings provide a context for your readers – both writer and readers begin at the same place and continue along the same path, guided by the headings.
Readers need headings
to give an overall picture
to point out where they are in the discussion
to assist in making the connections between the points of the argument.
Your readers understand the details better if they have been given an overview first. Remember, it’s the headings that provide the overview.
Readers will retain those details longer when they know in advance the nature of the information they are going to receive.
The heading level indicates the degree of detail being discussed.
Advantages for readers
breaking up the text
providing overviews along the way
announcing each key point before its detailed discussion
using the location and size of each topic to indicate its importance
allowing readers to decide where they will start
allowing readers to select what parts of the document they will read
giving readers places to pause, to regroup their thoughts or to rest.
Advantages for the writer
Structuring your document is so much easier!
You can readily check the logical flow of the argument.
You can move sections to a different place in the document when you can easily see the extent of that section.
You can create sub-headings to help you check the structure, and remove the sub-headings later if your document template or format does not allow for that number of levels.
You don’t have to provide transitions between topics.
A word of warning!
If your headings feed into an automatically generated table of contents, make sure your final task before publishing is to update the table of contents.
PS If, for whatever reason, you can’t include headings, you can use them to help you structure your writing – then delete them during the reviewing process.
Headings help both the writing and reading processes.
When writing nonfiction, 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?
‘Setting my teeth on edge’ – so it’s not just something to say when you hear fingernails scraping on a blackboard, or a child’s first tentative attempt to play a musical instrument.
It’s for real … and my, it is painful!
A recent visit to the dentist revealed that I’ve been expressing my stress by grinding my teeth while I sleep. The resulting sensitivity in my teeth and the muscle soreness have not been pleasant.
So now I need to de-stress!
However, it got me thinking about how many phrases we use that are related to our anatomy. So I searched out a delightful little book I’d been given a couple of years ago. Red herrings and white elephants by Albert Jack with illustrations by Ama Page gives the origins of some of the phrases we use every day. A quick scan of the index revealed about 25 – and that didn’t include some that even I know would cause a few blushes or raise the eyebrows.
Just a couple that I found interesting –
pull your finger out– Loaded cannons used to have gunpowder poured into a small ignition hole and held in place with a wooden plug. During those times when speed was important (like a battle, no less), the powder would be pushed in and then held in place by a gun crewman using his finger. Impatient artillerymen would shout, ‘Pull your finger out’ so the gun could be fired. As Albert Jack says, “It has not been recorded how many digits were lost on the battlefields.”
brass neck – The phrase suggests that while someone has the nerve to try anything to suit their own purposes, their action is usually accompanied by reluctant admiration by others. In the notorious time of highwaymen, it’s said that the miscreant, prior to his public hanging from the nearest oak tree, would swallow a piece of brass tube with a wire attached to it and held inside his mouth. This, he believed (or hoped), would allow him to breathe long enough for the crowd to disperse before his accomplice would cut him down so he could make a quick exit. Nobody seems to know if it worked, but it has left us with the phrase.
flea in your ear– Watch the distressed shaking of the head that accompanies an animal when it has something annoying in its ear. Telling someone off in no uncertain terms has the same effect.
Our language is so rich and we take it for granted, using expressions that are centuries old without giving them a thought.
Enjoy trying out words and phrases that are perhaps out of your usual repertoire, and add a new dimension to your writing.
Remember to visit mywebsite for other tips to sharpen your writing.
And I’m always around to help you solve your writing dilemmas – I love what I do!
What’s your favourite saying, and how do you use such expressions in your writing?
A few months ago I travelled to South-East Queensland’s Gold Coast to address the Gold Coast Writers’ monthly meeting. I’d chosen my topic Know the rules so you can break the rules, searched out examples to illustrate to my points, completed my notes and slides …
But then it hit me!
I was going to talk to real, live writers: face to face, no hiding behind a computer or a telephone! Now that was just plain scary!! (Excuse the exclamation marks – I usually advocate minimum use of such powerful punctuation – but I was really, really nervous.)
Why was I in such fear and trembling?
Most of my work as an editor happens in my office, just me and my computer. Even communication with authors is mostly by email, especially when I’m subcontracting. Occasionally I meet with or phone a writer, but it’s mostly solo work.
I’m sure my nervousness was quite obvious to the audience, but by focusing on what I was saying and some friendly and encouraging faces (thank you, Pam), I soon got into my stride. I spoke about how creative writers can deliberately break the rules of grammar to great effect, but understanding the theory is essential.
After I’d spoken, the questions started. I’d prepared further explanations and examples for question time, but I was surprised and delighted when all the questions were about the editing process. These talented people recognised that editing differs from writing, and to some extent, was a bit of an unknown.
So what topics were raised?
What should I expect from an editor?
How do I know I’m getting value for money from my editor?
What reference books should I use to help with grammar and punctuation?*
How do editors decide how much I pay?
But the topic that prompted a lively discussion revolved around the use of Australian English. Some wondered if it really mattered, while others spoke passionately about their pride in being an Australian writer and in our unique language.
Our Australian spelling and punctuation set us apart from other versions of English, and the time of cringing at everything ‘Aussie’ is long past. We did agree that sometimes we need to comply with the requirements for submissions to international journals and publications.
But Australian authors use Australian English.
I trust that you, too, embrace our pride in our way of doing things – or the way things are done in your country.
BTW, what were the rules I talked about?
Misplaced phrases or words can be misleading, embarrassing or humorous. (Born two weeks ago, zookeepers feared Shuffles would not survive such a difficult start to life.) Collective nouns are singular. (A pod of dolphins is swimming along the coastline.) Pleonasms (tautologies) can be distracting. (new innovations, past history, future plans)
Not sure about those rules? Leave a question or comment and I’ll help you understand them, or go across to Perfect Pages to find out how I can give you the confidence that your writing is crisp, clear and sharp.
* For Australian writers, I recommend an Australian dictionary (such as Macquarie, Oxford Australian, Collins Australian), and Style Manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edition, revised by Snooks & Co, John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd, 2002.
Why do I encourage writers to focus on their readers, rather than how expertly they write?
Written communication to a large extent is one dimensional. All the reader has is what’s in front of them.
But when we talk to people, there are auditory and visual clues that help us convey our message.
Listeners ‘read’ our facial expressions and watch our body language to improve their understanding of what we’re saying. They can see the twinkle in my eye when I make a facetious comment – they know not to take me seriously.
But if I were to write that comment, can I be sure it will not be taken as an insult?
Listeners can hear the inflections and changing tones in my voice.
A question is recognised by the rising inflection at the end of the sentence.
In its written form, it would appear as’ Do you want me to do that?’ The question mark tells readers that a question is being asked.
If I wanted to emphasise me, I’d say that word a little more firmly or loudly; but how do I make that distinction when I write?
I could use bold, hoping that the reader will notice that the word is bold and that they know what it suggests.
Perhaps the greatest advantage oral communication has over writing is the opportunity for feedback.
Listeners can ask questions, make comments, paraphrase back to me – and it happens immediately.
Both parties can complete the conversation feeling fairly confident that the message has been understood.
Unfortunately, we don’t necessarily have that same level of confidence when writing. Yes, our readers can contact us with their questions or comments, but that doesn’t happen very often in today’s fast-paced life.
So how can we by-pass those potential hurdles?
Know your message. Be sure you know exactly what you want your readers to know, understand or do by the time they’ve finished reading. It’s the same technique marketing mentors teach us: your call to action, your 30-second speil, your summary. Try out versions until you’re sure you know your message is saying exactly what you want it to say.
Know your readers. Have a mental picture of your reader, give her a name, understand what sort of writing she’ll relate to, understand what she’d like to know. Decide what language style (formal, informal, chatty, serious, light-hearted) will be most appropriate. How many specialised terms or abbreviations can you use, will you need to explain them, how? Could a graphic (table, illustration, graph, photo) be used instead of a chunk of text? You’ll certainly gain focus and clarity when you answer these question (and any others that help you understand your reader) before you begin to plan your writing.
Review your writing before you publish. When you’ve finished writing, put it to one side for as long as possible, then come back to it with fresh eyes. You’ll see what you have written, not what you meant to write. Read out loud – hearing what you’ve written will alert you to mistakes or clumsy constructions. And if you need to take a breath before you reach the end of a sentence, it would probably benefit from being turned into two shorter sentences. If possible, printout your document – reading it in a different format often lets mistakes jump out at you. Have a trusted colleague (preferably someone who’s not particularly familiar with the subject) review and comment.
Putting together all the elements that I’ve written about both here and inearlier posts will help you produce writing that your readers will want to read right though to the conclusion.
Have you found any other techniques to help you focus on making reading a pleasure for your readers?
Remember, I can help you become a better writer than you ever thought you could be: contact me through mywebsite.
You will be confident that your writing is clear, engaging and sharp.