This post kicks off my Write to Get Results blog series, which focuses on professional writing. To receive notifications of each monthly post in this series, sign up here.
NEW FEATURE: Starting with this series, each blog post will include an audio file of the author reading the text. Play the recording below if you’d like to listen to the following post rather than read it!
By Heidi Scott Giusto, PhD
“Write from the reader’s perspective.”
I utter these words several times each week as I work with clients on their job search documents and websites. While this advice is critical to writing effective resumes and websites, you should always consider the perspective of the audience for all types of professional writing. Doing so makes for clearer, more relatable communication.
Let’s discuss what writing from the audience’s perspective means in practice.
Be Aware of Jargon and Provide Context
If you are like most professionals, emails are probably your most common form of writing. When formulating an email—or any written communication such as proposals, contracts, reports, or marketing collateral—take a moment to think about your intended recipient and adjust your writing accordingly. Ask yourself these key questions:
• Will the reader know the context for what I’m writing about?
• Will the reader understand the meaning of key terms or jargon, and the full names of acronyms?
• Is the reader part of my organization or outside of it?
If you are a project manager emailing another project manager—in other words, you’re writing to a peer—feel free to use commonly known jargon, acronyms, and information a peer would know. On the other hand, if someone from the media emailed you to request a written stance on an issue, you’d want to use language relatable to a public audience, free of jargon and “insider” language. I remember the first time I read a document that used the term “swim lanes.” I was puzzled until I looked the term up online. Only then did I realize aquatics had nothing to do with the topic, but rather it was a type of diagram project managers use!
To further demonstrate how use of specialized terminology—or the lack of it—should be a consideration based on your audience’s perspective, compare the following two sentences that describe some of what I do in my consulting practice.
“I improve prose to minimize passive voice and expletive constructions and to omit comma splices and faulty parallelism.”
“I edit writing for grammatical correctness.”
While the first statement might be clear to a fellow editor who is curious about some of my strategies for editing, the second sentence is much more appropriate for just about everyone else. In short, think about not only what you need to communicate when writing but also how you should state it based on the reader’s perspective. When in doubt, clarify and avoid acronyms unless you fully write out what they stand for the first time you use them.
Don’t assume the reader will know everything you know. Work diligently to omit assumptions in your writing.
Also, adding context can help convey your meaning. When I work on resumes, I think about who will read the resume. If the resume is targeted for an internal promotion or a new job within the same organization, I can usually assume the reader will know many specialized, organization-specific terms my client might want to include. In contrast, my strategy is different when a client wants to transition to a new industry or company because I must translate the meaning and significance of their tasks and accomplishments. Even if everyone within one organization knows that the “Fairweather Award” is awarded to only one person out of 20,000 every five years, no one outside that organization will. The significance will be lost to an outside audience unless context is given.
To boil it down, don’t assume the reader will know everything you know. Work diligently to omit assumptions in your writing.
Know if You Must Adhere to a Style Guide
For longer, more substantial documents such as articles, blog posts, proposals, or technical documentation, find out if you need to write according to a style guide (an industry standard such as APA, MLA, or CMS, or an internal company style guide). This critical but admittedly mundane and tedious step can make all the difference. If your audience is expecting a document to look like X and you submit Y, then you might be missing opportunities to make a good impression or even alienating your audience because they might think you can’t follow the rules—or worse yet, don’t know the rules.
When you communicate from the reader’s perspective, it increases clarity, improves comprehension, and demonstrates communication abilities. If you’re wondering whether your tone and approach are on target, ask yourself this question as a litmus test: Is the message I’m asking my audience to understand equivalent to asking a child to understand a legal brief? Or asking a toddler to understand and play chess? Your gut will often lead you to the correct answer. If the answer is yes—or maybe—assess your assumption that your audience has pre-existing or specialized knowledge of the topic and then take a moment to decide if that is a reasonable assumption. If it is not, think about how you can clarify and add context so your message will resonate with your audience. And if needed, ask a trusted colleague or friend for their feedback—and be open to receiving it!
About Heidi Scott Giusto, PhD
As the owner of Career Path Writing Solutions, I am a career consultant, writer, editor, and workshop facilitator dedicated to helping individuals and businesses succeed when the stakes are high. My clients describe me as a kind guide, a fierce editor, and a secret weapon. I earned my PhD from Duke University and was previously the professional writing consultant for a master’s degree program; I currently work individually with clients and also teach workshops on professional writing and proactive career management.