Making sure that you take your reader’s point of view is the starting point for communicating effectively. Here are the four most common errors that writers make when trying to think like their readers, along with how to spot those mistakes and how to correct them.
I shouldn’t say this out loud but, as an editor, I’ve often been as clueless as the typical reader about the topic of the documents I’m editing. This isn’t always a bad thing:It makes it easy for me to spot when a writer stops taking the reader’s point of view — if I can’t understand the author, probably no one else can.
In both Learning Tree’s Business Writing and Technical Writing courses, we stress that if you want to explain things to other people then you have to explain it in a way those other people will understand. That means, as a writer, you have to crawl inside your readers’ head and explain everything from their point of view.
Unfortunately, that’s really, really, really hard to do (and that’s three “reallys”). Here are the four most common things I’ve seen writers get wrong in documents that I’ve edited when it comes to “thinking like a reader.” In all four cases, there’s a simple test that you can apply to tell if you’ve stopped seeing things through your readers’ eyes and an equally easy fix.
You’ve been working away on this document for a long time and you know exactly what it’s about. Your readers (or, more accurately, your potential readers) do not.
My favorite example of this was a document, written by a military author, entitled “Use of Electronic Devices in Volatile Environments.” It turns out that ‘electronic devices’ were what you and I would call ‘smartphones’ and ‘volatile environments’ were ‘ammunition depots.’ Since this document was aimed at general contractors coming onto military bases, a better title would have been something like “How NOT to Blow Yourself Up with Your Smartphone.” Heck, I’d read that document.
A good rule for your document is to describe, as early as possible, who you think should read this document (the audience), when the information in the document will be useful to those readers (the scenario), and what that information will do for the reader (the purpose). This can be as simple as the title for the document (“How to Use Microsoft Word, for WordPerfect Users”) but will probably form the subtitle or even the first paragraph.
In some case, it’s also helpful to describe when your document won’t be useful (“While this document is a guide to using the HERMAN software, it is not a replacement for document A45-G6 which is a complete description of HERMAN’s functionality”).
To find out if you’re making this mistake, ask yourself “If I had no idea what this document was about, how much would I have to read before I would know if this document will be useful to me in my situation?” If the answer isn’t in the document’s title or requires reading more than one or two paragraphs, you need a better opening.
If you have to explain what a term means then it’s because you’ve decided that your reader might not know the term (after all, why would you provide a definition of any words that you believe your reader knows). If that’s the case, you shouldn’t use the term before you define it. Yet, in documents I’m editing, I frequently find for example: “At this point, you’ll need to use the AMIL technique (Androgynous Master Insert Labeler — the diagnostic tool for determining the patient’s position).”
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t introduce terms-that-are-new-to-your-reader in your documents (in fact, I’ve done a blog post about when that’s a good thing to do). What I am saying, is that you should use what the reader understands first and then add the word afterwards. The correct sentence is “At this point, you’ll need to use the diagnostic tool for determining the patient’s position (Androgynous Master Insert Labeler: AMIL).” The useful question to ask is “What will my reader already know?” and begin with that (you can, eventually, lead the reader to what they don’t yet know).
You know stuff. And, if you enjoy communicating with people, you like sharing your knowledge. Here’s the problem: Your readers don’t care.
I’m not saying that your readers don’t care about anything…I’m just saying that your readers don’t care about many things that you know. Furthermore, you don’t have an obligation to explain anything to your readers. In fact, every time you stop to explain something to your readers that they don’t care about you’re doing three things that aren’t good. You are:
I just ran across an example of this in a user manual that I’m reviewing. The author wanted to reassure readers that, after they added a task to the list, the Task ID assigned to the task, was a completely random number — the user had no control over that number and the number had no meaning assigned to it. The author said that. Then the author then went on for three more sentences describing how that number was generated, just to prove that the number was, in fact, random.
The question I like to ask is, “What will the reader do differently or better now that they’ve read this sentence?” If you can’t come up with an answer, delete it.
A common mistake in user manuals is to start at the end of the process: “To change this setting, you’ll need to set the Font Size option on the Display tab in the Options dialog (available from the Help menu).” The user literally has to read the sentence backwards to figure how to get to the point where the setting can be changed.
Don’t get me wrong — often you want to begin with the result because that’s what the user is interested in. My sample ‘smartphone at the ammunition depot’ document should probably begin with “Here’s how to ensure that you have a safe trip to a dangerous place” (or something like that).
However, after you’ve got that out of the way, you want to start with what the reader knows or what the reader can see and lead them to the information that matters to them. The first part of the ‘smartphone at the ammunition depot’ should begin with the actions the reader needs to take before entering the depot (and not, for example, with what the reader must do after they’re inside the depot). To diagnose this problem, ask yourself, “Where is the reader at the start of this document (physically or mentally)? What information is available to them right now? Now, how will readers want to get from there to what matters to them?” Then write your document to follow that path.
If you avoid these four errors you’ll have gone a long way to presenting your information in a way that will make sense to your readers. And “making sense to your readers” is what communication is all about.