The most important goal in clear writing is to write understandably. The first step in meeting this goal is to know who you are writing for, i.e., your reading audience, and why you are writing for that audience. Whether your purpose is selling a product to the general public, writing a scientific paper, preparing a thesis for a degree, or explaining how a stockholder should exercise his/her right to vote at the annual stockholders meeting, it is critical to focus on the reader’s interests and write to address them. Take the reader’s knowledge and level of understanding into account by considering the makeup of your reading audience. Use language the reader will know and understand.
There are no hard rules in clear writing except to be clear to your intended reader. Clear writing means organizing and presenting all information in a way that improves readability. Using a specialized vocabulary such as legal or scientific terms may be appropriate when addressing an audience that understands the terms. However, when addressing a general audience, specialized terms should be explained or avoided if not necessary to present the information conveyed.
In other words, it matters if you are writing for a general audience or for a specific reader. A general audience will have varying degrees of reading sophistication. To write for a reader who is sophisticated on a specific subject requires sufficient knowledge in that area to make your writing understandable. But obviously, you shouldn’t use the same level of sophistication for a reader who will not understand it. In the same vein, a less sophisticated reader will have a greater need for understandable writing and may require more education on basic terms or concepts. There is a clear difference in the approach to writing for a college professor, steeped in the niceties of academia, and writing for an experienced business owner, accustomed to the hard knocks of the business world. The approach you take for one would probably not work for the other.
Important terms or concepts should be written in bold or italics for emphasis.
Knowing as much as possible about your reading audience is an essential step for your writing success. Thomas Paine knew and understood the nature of his intended readers, the American colonists, when he wrote Common Sense in early 1776. This little booklet argued for independence of the American colonies from the British Crown because it made good sense to do so. It had a wide ranging impact on the colonists and became a runaway best seller with over 100,000 copies eventually in circulation. It played no small part in the emotional run-up to the American Revolution.
Don’t guess or assume the knowledge level of your reader. Using available information, create a profile of your target reader by considering such factors as the reader’s age, level of education, and business experience. Get the reader’s perspective by putting yourself in the reader’s shoes. Ask yourself, why is my writing important to the reader? Then answer the question in your writing.
Obtaining the reader’s profile is not always as easy as it sounds but depends on your purpose in writing. Your reader will be different depending on whether you are preparing a job application, a report, or selling a product or service. If you’re writing to sell a product, for example, obtaining information about the buyer’s level of income, spending habits, net worth, and even his political beliefs may become important to you in persuading the reader to buy.
If you are writing for a single reader, try to tailor your writing to the reader’s interests or beliefs. It was always part of my pre-writing routine as an attorney to review the background and rulings of the judge who was assigned to my case. Having this information would enable me to “tailor” my writing to the idiosyncrasies of that judge. On one occasion when I was working on a new case, the opposing attorney was urging a legal interpretation that had no case law support. With the conservative leanings of the judge in mind, I successfully wrote an argument against the unwarranted result sought by the other attorney. The judge expressly adopted my arguments and the cases I cited in his decision, which gave me the satisfaction of knowing that my writing had been persuasive.
Keep the profile of your reading audience in mind as you turn to the next step, researching your subject matter to become an expert on it.
Additional clear writing guidelines and techniques are set forth in my book, The Art of Clear Writing, available at amazon.com/kindle books and CreateSpace.com.
Copyright © 2012. Arnold G. Regardie. All rights reserved.