I have been writing professionally for many years. For all of the experience that I’ve racked up writing scripts, sales copy, press releases, grant narratives and business correspondence, I have never come across any infallible rules or principals that I find to be a reliable companion to the writer, except this one: People hate to read.
Write it down, underline it and color it with a highlighter. It is the one guideline that should inform the creation of any piece of literature. Now, this is not to say that we don’t read. We certainly do. But it’s important to keep in mind that we do so very begrudgingly. Even when reading about a topic of interest, we cringe from huge blocks of text, lengthy dialogues and intricate descriptions. We, as a species, are hardwired to mentally cry out “next!” and keep moving the moment we feel that a literary point has been made.
If we’re all really so “anti-reading,” how do we write our correspondence, blog posts or sales copy in a way that engages the reader?
I’m glad you asked…
1. Know your audience
Who will be reading your work? An individual? A committee? A target demographic? Words are not neutral. They sway one way or another depending on the writer’s tone and disposition. The relationship we have with our reader plays a massive role in the way we communicate. This is most often an issue when we write for the nameless and faceless “masses.”
Say, for example, you’re writing sales copy for your web store. Who is your target audience? It’s not enough to answer that question with “whoever might buy my widgets.” Take into account age, gender, education level, income and other factors may influence widget sales. True, you do have to balance your narrative so that you’re not talking to one demographic to the exclusion of another. But it’s also true that talking to everybody (“whoever might buy my widgets”) is like talking to nobody. And if you’re not talking to me, I don’t really want to hear what you have to say.
2. Know what you want
Everything in print was created to convey a message. Whether that message is “buy now”, “thanks mom” or “no turn on red,” the message should be clear, obvious an repeated liberally. People do not take hints. If you present your message in a way that’s unclear or ambiguous, you’re telling your reader “move on… nothing to see here!”
Excellent copy will present a very decisive course of action backed up by clear rationale (“Do not eat! These mushrooms cause hallucination and cardiac arrest!”). As odd as it may sound, a reader essentially permits the writer to step to step in and do all the thinking temporarily.
Don’t squander the opportunity. Know what you want from the reader and say it.
3. Be brief
There is no greater sin in business writing than saying in two words what could’ve been said in one (see “people hate to read,” above). Text is the enemy of good writing–or, at least, its two-faced friend. Long, rambling text is like a drawn out joke with a lousy punch line. No one appreciates it. Make your writing meaningful and concise.
We need look no further than western civilization’s quick swap of our written language for tweet-esque communication. We have collectively decided to cut through the nonsense and hubgub of the English language and communicate in spurts of 140 characters.
For better or for worse, brevity in communication is expected in today’s day. Your readers are the boss. Give them what they want.
Yosef Moya is a freelance writer and development consultant with 17 years experience. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org