The Pitfalls of Writing in Everyday Life 09/23/2010
Today I am starting a ten-part series called “The Pitfalls of Writing in Everyday Life,” based on “Ten Report Writing Pitfalls: How to Avoid Them” by Vincent Vinci (1975). This article was initially published, I just recently discovered, by a company that employed me right out of college, Chemical Week Associates (they publish Chemical Week Magazine, among other things, and I worked there from 1992-1993 as an editorial assistant). I discovered the article in Strategies for Business and Technical Writing, edited by Kevin J. Harty (2008). I’d always felt a fondness for this piece – it’s by far my favorite in the book – and when I discovered its origins, I knew immediately that I was doing exactly the right thing by starting this series. Mr. Vinci, wherever you are now, thank you for your insights. They’ve inspired close to 1000 students already, and I’m sure there are more to come!
Now, on with the first installment…
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 100 times, “Ignoring Your Audience” is number one for a very important reason: you cannot write well if you don’t understand what your audience wants and needs to hear. Mr. Vinci says that a report “is usually directed to a specific person or group, and has a specific purpose,” which is great news, especially if you struggle with writing (as I do). Why? Because there are at least three things that WON’T happen to you if you analyze and understand your audience before you write, such as:
10 times easier. No. Really. At least 10.
Make a list. Vinci says, “place a sheet of paper in front of you….on the paper have written in bold letters WHO, WHY and HOW.” Under the “who” heading, list, if you know it, the name of the person who will receive your report. If you don’t have a name, list the group of people who will benefit most from your report in that space. Next, write the position your audience occupies (boss, chemistry professors, sales force, the managing editor of the New York Times), and all you’ve been able to find out about how they arrived at their positions, as well as what they know and don’t know about your project. Under the “why” heading, write down the reason(s) you’ve been asked to write the report – why you? why this information? why in this format? Ask your boss or teacher to clarify if you don’t know. Once you've answered all these questions, it's time to analyze your answers to arrive at the “how.” Look carefully at the information in your “who” and “why” columns, then jot down in the how column the ways your audience expects to receive your project. Your analysis of the who and why should answer the following questions:
I’ll let you in on a little secret, too… being able to fully understand your audience will also make your writing much more persuasive, "but that's another story and shall be told another time!" (The Neverending Story)
Have you used a tool like “who/why/how” before? Share your “Ignoring your audience” stories – what happened when you wrote without considering your audience? The best comment gets a free copy of Strategies for Business and Technical Writing (6th Ed, 2008).