Friday, October 28, 2011

Write With Your Reader In Mind, by Michael Steeleworthy

I have a challenge for anyone writes documents or develops a presentation, which means I have a challenge for pretty much everyone reading this post.  This challenge is simple to take up and easy to do, so it may sound like I’m talking about something we all know about already. But as easy as this challenge is to do, it’s often easier to forget, so it always bears repeating, and here it is:

Know your audience and make your writing accessible to them.

As a communications instructor and as a librarian, I regularly encounter documents and presentations that are full of substantial content that don't effectively convey it to the reader.  There are a number of ways to improve a document’s readability, including its appearance and organization of ideas, but before anyone puts pen to paper or starts tapping out words in Google Docs, Word, or PowerPoint, it’s essential that you know your audience and are orienting your message to meet their needs.Writing for your audience isn’t difficult to do, but it’s something we often slide away from since writing is an everyday practice in the workplace.  When you are drafting your documents, consider some of these pointers to help you keep your reader in mind:
  • Meet your audience’s needs.  If you are drafting a handout or a presentation for an English literature class, then focus your efforts on how to effectively find abstracts in ProjectMUSE instead of how many journals it has indexed.  Your students' main concern is how they can get the best mark they can on their assignments, so tailor your work to meet this need while you teach them the bigger picture.  This doesn’t mean you can ignore explaining what backfiles and moving walls are, but it does mean tailoring your talk on JSTOR so it can perhaps emphasize the  benefit of using this resource to examine a subject’s scholarly record.  Put your audience’s needs first and tailor your message towards them.
  • Avoid jargon.  Most students (and faculty) don’t know what “information literacy” means and most of them won’t care, either.  What is important to them is the lesson or the takeaway from session, so use plain language to get your point across (e.g., try using “Effective Research Skills” instead of “Information Literacy” in your first-year classes).  When you use plain language, you help your audience focus on the significance of your argument instead of what you mean by the picky words you may choose.
  • Chunk out your information with sections and bullets.  Avoid information dumps at all costs.  Make sure your document, whatever it might be, is easy to skim.  Do this by using headers and bullets.  Mark off your work with sections, and use boldface (but use it sparingly).  If your audience can’t find what they’re looking for the first time they read your document, then they’ll never return to it.
  • Guide your reader through your document with strong headlines.  This applies to projected presentations but applies to print documents, too:  Make your headlines active so your audience knows what to do with the information you give them.   A headline such as “MLA Database” may help your audience know what you’re about to talk about, but it can’t guide them as effectively as “Make the MLA Database your primary research tool” can.  The best headlines are contentions that your audience will be able to remember - and act upon.
Writing isn’t rocket science, but it can take effort.  Remember that the words we use stand beside us when we’re presenting to students, and stand in for us after the class has ended.  So make sure your writing - whether it’s a handout, an e-mail, or a PowerPoint deck - is accessible and meets your audience’s expectations.

Michael Steeleworthy is a librarian who blogs as

No comments:

Post a Comment