80 Engaging in Reader-Centered Writing
Writing can be conceptualized as writer-centered or reader-centered. Things like diaries and journals are primarily writer-centered, in that they are written for the benefit of the writer. Your schoolwork may also have been somewhat writer-centered, in that often your goal was to “show what you know” and thereby “get a good grade.” Many communications, especially technical ones, require that you shift this mindset and write for the benefit of your reader—or design the content and structure of your communication for your “reader.” This mindset should be informed by an understanding of your audience. Use these guidelines and ask yourself the following questions:
- Who is my target audience? Are they internal or external readers? Upstream, downstream or lateral from you? Do I have multiple readers?
- What is their perspectives on the topic, on me, and on the document I will write? What are they expecting to do with the document? What is the document meant to accomplish? Why has it been requested? What is my role and relationship to my readers? What does the reader need to know? Already know? What does my reader NOT need to have explained?
- What is my goal or purpose in writing to these readers? What am I trying to communicate? What do I want them to do as a result of reading this document? How can I plan the content to meet my readers’ needs?
- What is my reader’s goal? Why does this audience want or need to read this document?
Getting a clear understanding of your audience is important in communicating effectively. It also enables you to imagine your audience as you write and revise. Keep asking yourself whether what you have said would be clear to your audience. How could you say it better?
Choose one of the topics below. Then perform an audience analysis, using the questions above to gain an understanding of the needs of different audiences. Write a profile of your intended reader(s) and consider what sort of information they will need and why?
- You have been asked to write a report on Maintaining Internet Privacy for
a) A new internet user who just signed up for internet service
b) A start up e-commerce website developer
- Prepare a document on Food-born Diseases for
a) Restaurant workers (servers and kitchen staff)
b) For a health inspector training course
- Provide information on a proposed New Bus Shelter Design to
a) Mayor’s office
c) Newspaper reporter writing an article on the issue
“Tone” refers to the attitude that a document conveys towards the topic and/or the reader. You have likely read something that sounded angry, or optimistic, or humorous, or cynical, or enthusiastic. These words characterize the tone. Technical communication tends to avoid displaying an obvious emotion, and instead strives for a neutral tone.
Tone is created through word choice (diction), word order (syntax), sentence construction, and viewpoint. Consider a piece of academic writing that you may have read. It creates a formal tone through its use of specialized terminology, sophisticated vocabulary, complex sentence structures, and third person voice. This style suits the genre because it is directed at experts and scholars in the field, and seeks to convey complex information densely and objectively, with an emphasis on reason, logic, and evidence.
Now consider a piece of business writing that you may have read. The tone may be sightly less formal but not colloquial. The language is direct and plain, and the sentences are shorter and more straightforward. It may make use of the second person (“you”). This style suits business writing because it is directed at colleagues, management, or clients who are seeking information clearly and quickly and who may need to take action on it.
Striking the appropriate tone involves understanding your purpose, context, and audience. It also involves an understanding that workplaces are often hierarchical, and that cooperation and teamwork are required. Therefore, it is important to consider how you want your reader to feel, and what may make your reader feel that way. Your goal is to write constructively, which means to use positive phrasing to convey your message to your reader. Table 2.1.1 illustrates the differences between destructive/negative and constructive/positive feelings the reader may experience as a result of the tone used in a document.
|excluded||a sense of belonging|
Considering how your reader may feel after reading your document is an important part of revision. Did your tone come across like you hoped it would? Could it be misconstrued? Often this is where peer reviewing can be helpful. Asking a colleague to review your document before sending it off to its intended audience is a common professional practice.
Sometimes, you will need to communicate information that is unpleasant, such as delivering bad news or rejecting a request. Communicating constructively is possible—and arguably even more important—in these situations. Regardless of message, how can you ensure you are communicating constructively?
- Adopt an adult-to-adult approach: that is to say, avoid talking down to your reader in a patronizing tone, and likewise avoid sounding petulant or unwilling to take responsibility. Aim to communicate respectfully, responsibly, confidently, and cooperatively — as one responsible adult to another.
- Be courteous: focus on the reader as much as possible. Use “you” unless it results in blaming (one effective use of passive verbs is to avoid assigning blame: “mistakes were made”). Use traditionally accepted forms of courtesy and politeness. Use gender-neutral phrasing and plural forms, unless you are referring to a specific person and you know their gender.
- Focus on the positive: emphasize what you can do rather than what you can’t. Try to avoid negative wording and phrasing (no, not, never, none, isn’t, can’t, don’t, etc.). Focus on what can be improved.
- Be genuine: apologize if you have made a mistake. Take responsibility and promise to do better. Be authentic in your expression. Avoid sounding like marketing material (ad-speak). Make reasonable claims that can be backed with evidence.
Consider the following perspectives:
|Writer-Centered (I, we)||Reader-Centered (you)|
|If I can answer any questions, I’ll be happy to do so.||If you have any questions, please ask.|
|We shipped the order this morning.||Your order was shipped this morning.|
|I’m happy to report that …||You’ll be glad to know that …|
|Negative Phrasing||Constructive Phrasing|
|We cannot process your claim because the necessary forms have not been completed||Your claim can be processed as soon as we receive the necessary forms|
|We do not take phone calls after 3:00 pm on Fridays||You try …|
|We closed your case because we never received the information requested in our letter of April …|
A colleague has asked you to review his email before sending. What revisions to content, tone, and style would you suggest?
From: Jake Burns
To: J. Parsons, Project Coordinator
Date: 12 December 2015
Subject: Two Problems
Hi Ms. P
Say, we may need to increase the budget on this project by $12,000. Sam screwed up when he calculated material costs. Now we don’t have enough budgeted to add the additional G3 servers with the 36GB 15k hot pluggable hard drives. I know you don’t know what all that means, but trust me. WE NEED THOSE SERVER UPGRADES!!!
Also, I would like to talk about getting my office moved closer to the rest of the IT department. All the running back and forth is disturbing other employees. I am so far away from everyone that I figure I must need to change deodorant or something. ; )
How do you think the following memo will make the recipients feel? How would you revise the following memo to more constructively address the problem?
From: Ann Onymous
To: All Employees
Date: Feb. 3, 2011
For some time now, smoking has been strictly prohibited within five metres of the Main Building entrance. Do NOT smoke anywhere near the doors!
Some of you still insist on smoking and have been doing so inside this area. As a result, the areas near the rear exit and around the picnic tables are constantly littered with smoking-related debris (filter tips, half-smoked cigarettes, empty lighters, etc.), creating an eyesore and making more work for my staff, who have to keep cleaning up this mess.
Starting Monday, sand buckets will be provided outside the read doors and in the picnic area. Use them!
For further reading, see “Communication in the Workplace: What Can NC State Students Expect?” a study based on the responses of over 1000 professionals from various fields, including engineering, on how important business, technical and scientific communication is to their work.