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Gary B. Larson

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Focusing on your reader and purpose

Putting the readers' needs first can be hard when you are used to writing from your organization's point of view. Before you start writing, ask yourself a series of questions that will help you focus your writing and get your message across most effectively.

Who?| Why? | What? | How?

Who is your audience? Who is your primary reader? Are there others?

You may have more than one audience. Look at the characteristics most of your readers share. Figure out the most important or main audience for your document--and then adapt your writing to the abilities and interests of that audience. Depending on the significance of another audience, you may have to think about producing a separate publication to meet its needs.

Will there be a single reader or multiple readers? Your document may have only one reader, such as a supervisor. Or your documents may have many readers; they may be members of the public or employees with different jobs who work in one department.

Are you writing only for professionals? Is your document intended for working people or seniors? Are their reading skills universally low or high?

Will your readers include many members of specific cultural groups? Is English their second language? Will some or many of your readers have limited English proficiency and usually speak, read and write in Spanish, Japanese or another language? Is it likely that your document will be translated into one or more other languages?

What are the interests of your readers? Are your readers decision-makers who have limited time and want only recommendations and costs? Or are they technical specialists who want to know the complete methodology and conclusions before making decisions?

Is your relationship with your readers informal and personal, or does the situation need something more formal?

How much do your readers already know about the subject? Remember that many of your readers are probably less familiar with your subject than you are. Keep that in mind as you write. It will help you decide what your reader needs to know.

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Why are you writing this document?

Singling out one purpose may be hard. But a document with one primary focus is more likely to express its message effectively.

Are you writing about something new? Give your reader all the background information needed to understand. Try to link the new information to things the reader may already know.

Are you trying to change people's behavior? Make sure you mention how even small changes can bring benefits that are important to your reader. Will there be skepticism? You'll need to provide more evidence to support your conclusions and recommendations than you usually would.

Is the document a "how-to" text? Be sure it includes any background information needed to understand your instructions.

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What do you want to say? What points do you need to make?

Focus on what your reader wants and needs to know. Don't try to say more than you have to. Like you, your readers are bombarded with all kinds of information from many sources. Like you, your readers have much on their mind at home, at work, at school, and at play. And like you, they don't have the time and interest to read, understand and act on all the information they get.

So, reading your document is probably not the highest priority for many potential readers. Your readers' needs and wants should influence what information gets the most emphasis in your document. And your readers' needs and wants should influence what information you drop from your document.

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How will your reader use this information? How is your reader likely to react?

How people use your document will help you decide how to organize and write the information in it. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • In what circumstances will your reader be using your document?
  • Will your document be a quick reference tool?
  • Will your reader find your document in a display?
  • Will your document be translated into other languages for some readers?
  • Is your reader supposed to do something after reading the document?
  • Is the reader supposed to remember certain information?
  • Is the reader supposed to agree with your viewpoint?

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