5 questions to ask before you write anything

Your answers will keep your writing focused, save your reader time, and make your boss happy.

“That writer does the most who gives his reader the most knowledge, and takes from him the least time.” —C. C. Colton

Want to give your reader the most knowledge in the least amount of time? Ask yourself these five questions before you put finger to keyboard.

1. Who is my reader?

Clients. Employees. Investors. They all have different needs and levels of knowledge, so you need to know exactly who you’re talking to before you put your fingers on the keyboard.

Writing for different types of readers? Maybe you need to create different versions of your piece for each audience.

2. Who is not my reader?

The biggest mistake non-expert business writers make is this: they write for one of the two readers who don’t matter. These two readers are:

  • You.
  • The person who briefed you. This person is usually known in corporate jargon as “the stakeholder.” Because we often see this figure as part client and part boss, we can be tempted to please him rather than advise him, which usually means reining him in.

If you really want to spare your reader’s time, learn the difference between what you or your stakeholder wants to say and what your reader needs to hear.

That update to employees about what some senior executive has been up to for the past quarter? That email to customers that announces the “exciting” news that the company just won an award? They may make you or your stakeholder feel warm and fuzzy, but no one else cares.

Ditch anything you know is of no use to your reader.

What is useful to your reader? That leads us to the next question.

3. What do I want my reader to do?

If you don’t ask your readers to do something after they read your piece, you can probably spike it.

Everything you write should have what’s known in the trade as a call-to-action. These are the words that tell your readers what you want them to do.

Examples are: “Fill in the employee survey today,” “Order now and save 20 percent,” or “Here’s our business strategy and here’s what I want you to do about it.”

No call-to-action? No need to publish.

4. What does my reader need to know in order to do what I want him to do?

Everything you write should be geared toward the call-to-action-instructions, deadlines, contact details.

That means you need to ditch the scene-setting introduction you put in to warm up the reader. And that opening paragraph that begins with “Three years ago,” “As you know,” or “As I said in my last announcement.”

Such corporate throat-clearing leaves your reader asking, “So what?” He will throw out your work before he gets to the important bit—the call-to-action.

If you really must provide context—an explanation of why you’re asking the reader to take action, for example—put it after you tell him what you want him to do.

Remember, no one has to read your stuff. The less essential the information, the farther down you should put it.

5. What if we don’t publish?

This last question is particularly powerful.

If you or your stakeholder can’t articulate a good business case for publishing—or for including six paragraphs on how you “deliver transformational change across the business, blah, blah, blah”—then press delete.

Clare Lynch is chief business writer and trainer at Doris and Bertie, a U.K. communications agency that helps businesspeople ditch corporate-speak and talk like human beings. Follow her on Twitter @goodcopybadcopy.

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