When you write, do you consider how your readers will read your document? Do you expect your readers to be conscientious? Will they studiously read every sentence and paragraph from beginning to end? Some readers will read your entire document, while some will quickly look for the main points and then file it away, perhaps hoping to read it properly later on. Some readers might give up after reading the first sentence because it doesn’t interest them.
You cannot assume all of your readers will obediently start at the beginning and diligently read every sentence and absorb every word. To communicate clearly, you need to understand your reader and what they want to know. Not only do you need to define your target audience, you need to understand how they read and what they want.
Not everyone reads the same way
A reader’s behaviour is primarily influenced by their level of interest in your topic and how much time they have to read. Many other factors also affect their decision to start reading and to keep reading until the end. As a writer, you have control over some of these factors and being aware of how your reader reads will improve your ability to attract your reader and keep them engaged.
I consider there are generally two types of readers of scientific documents. The avid reader who will read every single word in your document (even if it is poorly written) and the lukewarm reader who may not thoroughly read your document (even if it is well written).
An avid reader is someone who will read your entire document because…
- they believe they will immediately gain a direct benefit
- they respect you
- they are familiar with your writing and expect that your document will be informative and easy to read
- your information is not found anywhere else
- they have commissioned your project
- they are very interested in your topic and will thoroughly read everything they can find on it
- they are your peers, colleagues or competitors with a vested interest in your work
A lukewarm reader is someone who has started reading your document, but…
- is busy, little time to read and is rapidly searching for the take-home message
- is easily distracted
- is trying to do three things at once
- is poorly organised
- unsure about what they need to read
- doesn’t feel like reading
- will decide very quickly whether to keep on reading
- will be easily convinced to stop reading
Assume most of your readers are lukewarm
If you assume all of your readers are avid readers, you might not try hard enough to write well.
Assume all of your readers are lukewarm: that they have little time to read, have a short attention span, are easily distracted or would prefer to be doing something else.
Expect that your reader has many other documents in a large and overly-optimistic ‘must-read’ pile and will only spend 2-5 minutes skimming over your document before deciding to delve in. Write for them. While some of your readers will remain lukewarm, no matter what or how you write, make sure that even the most disinterested reader can easily find a concise, informative summary or take-home message.
Key considerations to attract and engage your reader
Your reader needs to be immediately convinced that your document will be useful.
- Will it immediately attract your reader?
- Is it hard to read?
- Is it too specific or too long or does it rely on too much background knowledge?
- Does it refer to a relevant or interesting scientific topic?
How and where you present key information
- Provide context at the very beginning. This means that you start your introduction with a succinct overview of the problem your document will be solving and how your project or topic fits within your discipline.
- Are your sentences and paragraphs well-structured so that important points or details are not hidden within unnecessary or irrelevant detail?
- Are your key messages and conclusions abundantly clear?
- Do you have a document summary where the reader can absorb the key findings and take-home message at a glance? If your document doesn’t normally include a summary, can you break the rules and write one? If not, ensure your key findings are short and concise.
Ease of reading and comprehension
Your reader will want your document to be clear and easy to read, so write clearly and concisely.
A document that is easy to read has a greater chance of being read even if the reader’s interest is low and they haven’t much time. Anything off-the-topic, confusing, or to too specific might easily cause your reader to not only stop reading but permanently decide that your document is of no interest to them. If your document is hard to read then only the determined or avid reader will finish what they have started.
Your reader’s background knowledge and expertise
How much background knowledge do you assume your reader has before they start reading? Unless you are specifically writing for experts, don’t assume your reader is an expert on your topic. However, don’t assume your reader needs to be told every detail surrounding your topic. Decide what your main points are and stick to them.
Document design and layout
Is your document well-laid out, with appropriate visuals, fonts and headings?
How do you read?
To help you engage your readers, analyse your own reading behaviour. How do you react when you are reading something unfamiliar or not immediately interesting? How often do you read a document all the way through? What causes you to lose track and stop reading?
Pretend someone else wrote your document
When reading through a late draft of your work, try pretending that you didn’t write it. Look hard for anything that could be confusing, vague or have any unintentional double meanings. This might help you understand how someone else reads your writing.
Ask for feedback
If feasible ask someone from your target audience for feedback. In particular, tell them to let you know if anything is unclear or confusing or if any details appear missing.
© Dr Marina Hurley 2019 www.writingclearscience.com.au
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