How To Write For Busy Readers

Less time and shorter attention spans mean adjusting your writing to fit your audience—without losing your voice.

A few weeks ago, a friend forwarded me an email called theSkimm. She confessed that this morning newsletter—which sums up the headlines—was how she was getting her news these days. I checked it out and saw why. The writing is tight. You’re in and out in two minutes. You feel like you learned something.

All those attributes are key for grabbing readers these days. With the sheer quantity of information out there competing for attention, you can’t afford the dreck that passes for much workplace writing. That’s not to say that depth doesn’t have its place. But when you want busy people to pause in the middle of their workday to pay attention to what you have to say, keep these tips in mind.

State your point.

What’s your idea? What are you recommending? If someone’s asked your opinion on something, do you come out for it or against it? Get the one-sentence executive summary of your argument up top. Then you can offer explanations below.

List the evidence.

Bullet points are good, or short paragraphs (like these). Choose your strongest arguments and hold the rest in reserve. If people want to know more, they’ll ask.

Think in action sequences.

Forget murky subjects ("stakeholders") and verbs that don’t mean anything ("collaborate"). Busy readers want to know who should do what, when.

Trim.

Look at what you’ve written. Figure out the word count. Now give yourself a new target. If you’ve written 600 words, aim for 500 and see what that forces you to chuck. Most people can cut 10-20% without losing much of value. Indeed, chiseling often makes the writing better.

Look for widows.

This is an old newspaper trick for blasting wordiness. A "widow" is a few words of text in the last line of a paragraph. If the widow extends less than halfway across the line, edit to get rid of it. You’ll cut needless words but the text will look heftier.

Find your voice.

Zest is the fun part of theSkimm (on violence in the Ukraine: "Russia’s still saying it has nothing to do with the unrest. Cue maniacal laughter"), and anything else people actually read. When you don’t couch ideas in mushy words, your view of the universe can shine through. Writing is a risk. Be bold. Why bother to communicate otherwise?

Read it out loud.

Even when people read silently, they’re saying the words in their heads. So try reading what you’ve written. If you trip over phrases, your sentences are too long. Cut more. Add more periods. Your readers will thank you.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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