Writing for the Reader—Hitting the Target
Every day, the questions arise for writers and editors—What is the right way to write this? the right word? the right structure? Do I like this word or phrasing? Should I change this wording to something more sophisticated or less boring or shorter or longer? Is this right, wrong, great, or OK (or okay or Ok)?
But really the question is whether the writing will work for the intended reader, in the chosen format or on the chosen platform, to meet whatever goals there are for the writing. In other words, context matters. Effective writing (and editing) is not simply a matter of churning out words that adhere to rules but rather making effective, creative, elegant choices for the task at hand. Sometimes the choices are at least somewhat narrowed (for example, American English using the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary 11th edition, Chicago Manual of Style) but more often they aren’t. What will hit the target?
So, to answer that, there are more questions:
Are you writing (or editing) fiction or non-fiction? for the general adult reader in Canada? the United States? Britain? or beyond? for a reader expert in the subject or a layperson? for someone who has low English literacy skills or high? for a reader wanting a rip-snorting great story? for a reader dealing with a crisis? for a reader digging into a manual or web site to learn a skill or answer a question as efficiently as possible? for a possible buyer? for a busy person who will decide in your favour or against? for the reader who will be reading with great attention, savoring each word?
Unless the target reader is exactly like the writer (and how often is that the case?), the writer and editor need to consider carefully what works for the target reader —and then write and edit for that reader. (I can’t stress this enough. It informs—or should inform—all editing and all writing except the earliest drafting.)
What does the reader want? need? expect? understand? respond to? care about? What information do you have about the reader? What terms, phrasing, and structures work and make sense for the reader? What can beta readers or focus groups or user groups or guest readings at the kids’ library or your best friend (if your target is just like your best friend) tell you about what works and what doesn’t? What can you learn from the web site of that target reader? or the most popular news source or key dictionaries or guides? What can some other, successful publications for the target reader tell you about how to write for that reader? For example:
- For a Canadian reader in a government office, structure, write, and edit for clear, brief, actionable communication; clarify main points and goals; look to the reader’s web site to use their language; and use spellings from the Canadian Oxford Dictionary.
- For that reader you want to read your rip-snorting tale, read great, rollicking stories that engage your target reader; ask what works and why and how; imagination your characters, settings, and storyline and develop them over time; and then write, revise, and edit for pacing, character development, and an engaging yarn using what you know about the reader and what works for them.
In sum, write (and edit) for the target reader.