- Have you ever read something that was so muddled, you had to read it three times before you understood it?
- Have you ever received a long rambling email and spent ten minutes trying to figure out what the point of it was?
- Have you ever received a letter or email composed of a solid block of text and decided, “Forget it! I’m not reading it”?
In all these cases, the writers contributed to one of main costs of poor writing: wasted time. When people write garbled, rambling, dense documents, they force their readers to spend unnecessary time decoding their messages. Poor writing wastes time.
In the Worktalk trainings, we teach several tools that allow readers to use their time effectively:
Know your point before you start.
We’ve all had the experience of slogging through a long email and finally seeing the writer’s “aha” moment --- the moment when the writer realized her own main point. There’s nothing wrong with taking a while to figure out what your main point is – just don’t drag your reader through your mental discovery process.
In reading the writing samples of hundreds of business writers, I have also seen cases when the writer never did seem to figure out his own point; he just threw a bunch of points on the page and let the reader figure out what was important. Here’s an example:
Dear Mr. Ritz,
Downs High School is at the corner of Polk Street and Downs Avenue. I remember it well from my days a student there so long ago. The senior citizens park adjoining the school is also so lovely. The senior center is leased to Jonesville School District, I believe.
Someone has reported that the benches in the senior center need to be repaired. We don’t have the current lease agreements, although we do have a site map and some notes from a meeting discussing the leases from many years ago.
Any information you can send would be most appreciated.
The point is that the writer needs the reader to send him the current lease agreements before the district can repair the benches. However, he did not make his request.
Before you start to write, take a moment and say or write, “What I really want my reader to know/do is…” That way you do not make your reader stop and think about what he is supposed to do. He will read your document once and understand your message.
Put your main point first, in most cases.
If the main point is buried in the middle of a document or email, your reader is likely to overlook it. People are paying most attention at the beginning and at the end of documents
The main point generally belongs at the top of your document.
If your main point is positive or neutral, remember the acronym BLUP: Bottom Line Up Front.
Putting your main point at the top enables the reader to just read that and then decide how much of the remainder to read.
Break up the page with plenty of white space.
What’s your reaction to a long block of text?
If your impulse is to skip that document or email and move onto something that looks friendlier, you are not alone. That is what most readers do.
It takes longer to read a dense block of text than it does to read a series of three- to four-line paragraphs separated by beautiful white space. White space rests the eye. It enables readers to read, blink, look up briefly, look down, and be able to find their place. You could put the winning Powerball numbers in the middle of a dense block of text and be confident that no one would claim the prize.
Break up the page with moderate-sized paragraphs so that your document takes less time to read.
Using these three simple tools will save your readers time:
- Know your point before you start.
- Make the point early in the text
- Keep the format friendly.