How to write for the reader

If you fail to tailor your writing for your reader, you run the risk of frustrating them, alienating them, boring them, confusing them or losing them before they receive the message you are trying to get across.

4 key steps to writing for your reader

  1. Know who your reader is.
  2. Identify your message.
  3. Tailor content, style, structure and visuals to your reader.
  4. Master the basics of good writing.

Know who your reader is

Your reader is the most important part of your writing. Are you writing for scientists and researchers, senior managers, farmers, natural resource managers or the general public? If it is some or all of these, figure out who your primary reader is and keep them foremost in your mind throughout the following steps.

Identify your message

Your message should incorporate your intent and the aims and the needs of your reader. Spend some time answering the three questions below before preparing your message.

What do I want to get across?

Know your intent. What is your reason for writing to this reader? What is their benefit in reading? Do you want to inform or persuade?

If you want to inform, give the reader a take-home message.

Example: For proven economic gain, the bottom line for control of soil erosion is cover, cover, cover! Contact your local Department of Agriculture to get your free guide: Cost effective erosion control on-farm.

If you want to persuade, include a call for action that encourages the reader to act in some way.

Example: Share in $15,000 and help us celebrate our 15 year anniversary. Send in your photos that capture the sense and spirit of Australia's landscapes, livelihoods and lifestyles.

What does my reader want to know?

Work out what benefit or outcome your reader would respond to and how you can best deliver it to them while still meeting your own needs.

What could the reader get wrong if my message is not clear?

Try to avoid misunderstanding by pre-empting what your reader could get wrong and stressing the correct information.

Example: If you’re writing a fact sheet about a consultation process, your reader may think they have more power then they actually do. You need to stress what role they do have in decision-making. The government has already committed to constructing this dam. This consultation process will not change this fact. However, it will give you an opportunity to influence decisions about compensation.

Tailor content, style, structure and visuals to your reader

Reader: Scientists, researchers
ContentStyle and structureVisuals
  • New information
  • Relevance to their work
  • Opportunities for collaboration/linkages
  • How it fits in the ‘big picture’
  • Formal; detailed; show process
  • Some jargon OK but avoid specialist jargon
  • Typical structure:
    • Hypothesis
    • Aims
    • Methods
    • Results
    • Conclusion
  • Some visuals e.g. graphs with technical details
  • Diagrams, photos
Reader: Senior managers
ContentStyle and structureVisuals
  • The bottom-line
  • Relevance to their business
  • What you want them to do
  • Benefits, costs ($)
  • Opportunities
  • How it fits with strategic directions
  • Specific examples
  • Formal; outcomes, not process
  • Succinct – two page executive summary
  • Jargon-free
  • Describe the most important benefits of the work first
  • Append details of the process
  • Graphs showing trends only
  • Statistics to support their needs
  • Pie charts, flow diagrams
  • Photos
Reader: Farmers, natural resource managers, general public
ContentStyle and structureVisuals
  • Benefits
  • Options for involvement
  • Local relevance
  • Local examples
  • Outcomes, not process
  • Jargon-free
  • Broadbrush photos, diagrams

Knowing your reader’s reading style will help you structure your writing. Some readers will read only the summary. Many will also read the introduction and the conclusion. Others may be interested in part of the detail and will scan for signposts to their area of interest. Include a table of contents and use headings to help the reader to easily find what they are looking for.

The summary may be your only opportunity to engage the busy reader and is therefore all important. It should contain your key messages, key benefit and a linking statement that encourages the reader to read on. It should be snappy and appealing.

Your conclusion will depend on your aim in writing—to inform or persuade. Many scientists think they should write only to inform. We encourage you to write to PERSUADE!

Writing to persuade

To write persuasively, use one or more of three rhetorical devices that have been used for thousands of years:

  1. Project credibility - sound authoritative or have someone authoritative back up your claims (ethos).
  2. Make an emotional appeal to the reader’s needs, desires or fears (pathos).
  3. Appeal to logical reasoning based on principles and evidence (logos).

Think of an advertisement for toothpaste presented by a person in a white coat. The white coat indicates credibility (ethos); the sparkling teeth are what we all want (pathos); and the toothpaste appears to have effective cleaning properties (logos).

Master the basics of good writing

If you are not clear, concise and correct, you may lose your reader early.

  • Write as if you are face-to-face with your reader.
  • Keep your sentences short (try 20 words) and/or well structured.
  • Use active voice and bring your writing to life (‘we monitored the results…’, not ‘…the results were monitored).
  • Use concrete, everyday words. Avoid jargon, unexplained technical terms, acronyms, redundant words and archaic words (whilst, hence).
  • Get someone else to check your writing.
  • Read good writing - how will you recognise it if you’ve never seen it?
  • And remember:

‘There is no event, however abstract, that cannot be translated into human terms’. Arthur Christianson, newspaper editor, London Daily Express, 1950s - 60s

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