Generally speaking, there are two reader types to which your writing should be tailored: Skimmers and Skeptics.
Skimmers (the majority of readers) are typically very busy, so they often skim documents quickly. With this in mind, the documents you prepare for this particular reader should:
- State the main point clearly and up front
- Place the most important information at the beginning or ending of paragraphs
- Use subject-verb constructed sentences: “The report is complete and ready for your review.”
- Highlight key dates or figures when applicable and appropriate
Both of the following examples represent the same experiences, but note the difference in both layout and language:
For the last several years, in my most recent position as Purchasing Manager, I have been responsible for the oversight of $100,000 in project accounts. Additionally, I manage a team of four other buyers. I provide regular training seminars, including an in-office bi-monthly team-building session. To ensure excellence in the department, I also compile and publish reports to the president and board of directors.
As Purchasing Manager from 2010 to the present, I am responsible for:
- overseeing $100,000 in project accounts;
- managing a five-buyer purchasing department;
- providing training to other buyers, including team-building sessions; and
- compiling and publishing reports to the president and board of directors.
Note that Example 2 has the same information, but simply using bullet points makes it clearer and easier for readers to locate important information compared to Example 1 where the information gets lost.
Skeptics, on the other hand, are careful readers. Skeptical readers tend to read a document thoroughly to question the writer’s claims and evaluate the work’s validity. In order to meet the needs of the skeptical reader, it is necessary to support/illustrate your statements with sufficient details and specific evidence, such as examples, statistical data, dollar amounts, specific dates, case studies, etc. Some skeptical readers (like myself) also assess the writing itself, including its structure, grammar/mechanics, word choice, and layout.
Note the difference between the examples below with regard to specificity :
NOT: The company has excellent customer support.
BUT: The company has customer service representatives available around the clock to provide user support by telephone, email, or in-person consultations.
In addition to following general guidelines for writing to both busy and skeptical readers, it is a good idea to determine who your actual readers are (or are likely to be) and to write specifically for them.
When preparing technical documents, it is important to remember potential audiences for your work. Awareness of the differences between Intended and Unintended audiences may affect what information you present and how you present it. Awareness of a complex audience ensures that an author’s writing does not exclude any potential readers.
Intended & Unintended Audiences
Your intended audience is the audience for which your document is intended (your instructor, co-worker/colleague, supervisor, etc.).
Your unintended audiences consist of anyone who could come across your writing at any point in time. In professional and technical writing, it’s important to be mindful of the unintended audience, including any emails, memos, or reports you produced.
Primary, Secondary, & Tertiary Audiences
A primary audience consists of people to whom the communication is directed.
A secondary audience consists of people who will not directly act on or respond to the document but who may need to be aware of it.
A tertiary audience consists of people who might take an interest in the document, such as interest groups, government officials, and the general public.
Writing for a complex audience is different from academic writing. In academia, there is a specific audience for most pieces of writing, generally an instructor or a fairly small group of peers. In a professional setting, you will often write for a complex audience of people with different backgrounds, specialties, and expectations. With that in mind, avoid using terminology (or jargon) that is too technical so you don’t unintentionally exclude portions of your audience.