Getting the reader on your side is relatively easy. It means writing so that you:
- put the reader first
- address the reader as ‘you’, and
- use gender-neutral language
Put the reader first
The difference between mediocre writers and good writers is that mediocre writers start with the subject, while good writers start with the reader.
Think of what interests your readers, not what interests you.
The more you tell your readers what they want or need to know about a topic… how it relates to their problems and concerns… the more interested they will be.
To do that you must understand three things about your readers:
- who they are
- how much they already know about the proposed topic, and
- how they would benefit from knowing more about it
Do not assume that everyone knows the basics of what you are writing about… your article should inform both the experienced and inexperienced reader alike.
Before you sit down to write an article, report or paper on a technical subject, you need to get rough answers to these questions:
- Are my readers technical people?
- What do they already know about the topic?
- What do they want and need to know about the topic?
- How important is the topic to them either in their work or private life?
- What do I want them to think, believe or do after reading my article?
- How will they benefit from my article?
Most of these questions can be answered in a general way, which is all you need, using common sense. However if you are writing more important material you will probably need to have a reader’s survey done.
Write in the second person
Writing in the second person means addressing the reader as ‘you’. By addressing the reader directly, you are putting him or her first.
Using ‘you’ engages the reader in way that using the third person (he, she or it) never does.
Consider this sentence in the third person… “the volume of the power chord can be easily regulated by the guitar player through use of the foot pedal”.
You can engage the reader more if you write to him or her directly… “you can regulate the volume of the power chord easily using the foot pedal”.
As advertisers know, ‘you’ is one of the two most persuasive words in the English language. (The other is ‘free’.)
People care about themselves first… you, your project, technology or whatever is a distant second.
Thus, when you are using ‘you’, you are talking about the subject that matters most to readers and it holds their attention.
Using words such as postman that are gendered (ie, end in… man) is a sure-fire way to appear out of touch and old-fashioned.
In addition, you run the risk of alienating your readers, especially female readers some of whom can get pretty riled up by issues of gender.
The rich vocabulary available to a speaker of the English language means that it’s usually easy to get around this.
For example, you can substitute the word ‘police officer’ for ‘policeman’, ‘meteorologist’ for weatherman and so on.
Getting rid of the suffix ‘man’ in this way makes your writing more inclusive and, incidentally, more accurate… many traditionally male occupations are now undertaken by women.
A quick switch from the singular to the plural is another way to get out of using gender-biased language.
Instead of “The owner must have his car serviced once a year”, you can write “Owners must have their cars serviced once a year”.
If that doesn’t work then try using ‘he or she’ or ‘him and her’ rather than favouring one gender over the other.
Or use ‘they’ as a singular gender-neutral pronoun… this is perfectly understandable and indeed is now permissible under the style guides of many international newspapers and other publications.
Motivate the reader with benefits
It is often hard to get a reader to persevere in reading technical documents such as job manuals that are, out of necessity, highly detailed yet vital for what a reader is supposed to be doing.
The trick is to let the reader know the benefits of doing so up front so that he is motivated to read attentively. If you are writing a manual, summarise what he or she will learn and why it needs to be understood.