Thursday, July 1, 2021

Writing To Be Read

Why do you write? I am an engineer and (to my surprise) I find that I write a lot. I write for several reasons: I write to take notes; I write to organize my thinking; I write to learn. All of these reasons are important, but I don't share those writings with others. I also write to change things: to convey ideas; to teach; to persuade. There is one thing that I desperately need in order to have a chance of achieving those goals: I need a reader. I need someone to read what I have written and to engage with my ideas. I need someone to understand what I wrote, think about its implications, and challenge my arguments. Because I need a reader, I write to be read.

Knowing why you do something provides a guide to doing it better. Knowing that I want people to read my writing, guides how I write, and guides my efforts to be a better writer. Chances are that you write as well. Maybe, you would like me to read what you have written. If so, please consider my thoughts below.

How do you get someone to read your writing? And why would someone read what you wrote? One way to answer those questions is to ask the reader. This is a good thing to do, but is challenging if you don't yet have readers. A second way to answer those questions is to imagine yourself as the reader and ask yourself. This imagination requires empathy with the reader. The best way to develop empathy with the reader is to be an avid reader yourself. I am.

I know from my own reading that I read to learn, to solve problems, and to be entertained. When I am reading to learn and to solve problems, I review a lot of writing to find answers to those problems. I even read about reading. I skim blogs, papers, and books to see if they address my interests. The best writing quickly tells me if it is relevant or not. If it is, I can devote my full attention to it. If it's not, I can move on. Bad writing makes me work to figure out if it is relevant. Once I have decided that a piece of writing is relevant, I read it specifically to answer my questions. That may entail a thorough reading of the entire work (possibly multiple readings). Or it may only entail a thorough reading of the conclusion or of a particular section. God bless authors who make it that easy. For my own reading, I want writing that quickly tells me if it's relevant, writing that answers my questions, and writing that is pleasant to read along the way. Therefore, I strive to make my writing relevant, actionable, and pleasant.

Tell the reader why it's relevant

Making writing relevant is not hard, but it does require resisting the urge to be dramatic or coquettish.

Start with the title

The title is the first thing someone is going to see. Give them enough information to decide if they should keep reading or not. For example, from the title of this blog post you can already tell that the post is 1. about writing, and 2. getting that writing read.

Continue with the body

Continue that directness into the start of your text. If you are writing something long enough to have an abstract, write the abstract after the rest is done and put a lot of effort into it. Specifically craft the abstract to help a reader answer "Is this relevant to me?" Don't be dramatic by hiding some stunning twist at the end. That's great for fiction—skip it here.

End strong

Finally, end with a summary or recap. Savvy readers will go straight to the end to determine if something is worth reading or not. Writing a strong recap at the end helps the savvy reader, as well as any reader who reads your whole work (through reinforcement).

Answer the questions

Now that you have told the reader why they should read your work, make it worth their time. They are reading your writing to learn something and to answer questions. Make sure you answer those questions. Don't just say the conclusions; Provide the details and arguments to back it up. Much of my technical writing is experiment based. I make sure to present the conclusions (easily and clearly), but I also include the detail that went into it—the why the reader should believe my conclusions. What experiments did I run? What did I expect to happen? What did happen? What are the limits of my conclusions? Include all of that. I am sure that most readers have no desire to recreate my experiments and results, but they take comfort knowing that they could. That detail both makes it more likely for someone to believe the recommendations, and for a reader to be able to point out flaws or limitations in the work. Both outcomes should be a win for you (or me) as a writer.

There are limits to including the detail. You want to make it easy for the reader to get the answers and have faith in those answers. You don't want to bury the reader in detail. So, include the detail, but if it becomes too much, move some of it to appendixes or separate (linked) documents.

Make it readable

You've written your article. You've made it relevant and you have answered questions. Great! But you are not done. In fact, you have just gotten started. Now it is time to make it readable—that means editing. Put the writing down and walk away, then come back and read it again.
  • Which parts are rough or confusing? Clean those up.
  • Which parts make no sense? Remove or rewrite those.
  • Which parts don’t fit with the overall article? Remove those also.
Repeat the process until you have something that you would like to read.

For example, the first draft of this post had long lists of reasons that I write, each with 5 or 6 items. The lists were long enough that I found myself getting lost in them when re-reading. “I write to take notes; I write to organize my thinking; I write to learn; I write to review; I write to stay focused in meetings”. Those lists were shortened to 3 items each. Additionally, that first draft had a paragraph on how to read. That content largely did not fit with the theme of this post and was cut, with only small pieces preserved to motivate “make it relevant”, “answer the questions”, and “make it pleasant”.

Now consider having someone else read your writing. Have them identify what's rough, confusing, or just does not make sense. Depending on the audience and the work, there is obviously a spectrum of how much effort you should put into a particular piece of writing. I would venture that the more you care about the outcome, the more effort you should put into it. I had someone read this article, and the writing is both better and truer to its theme for the feedback.

Recap: Be Kind to Your Reader

If you take one thing away from this blog post, I hope it is "be kind to your reader." If you write to be read, the reader is the most important person in the world. Be kind to that person. Make it easy for them to determine if they should read your writing. Make it easy for them to pull out the lessons they need. And make it easy and pleasant for them to read your writing. They will appreciate it. Maybe I will be your reader, and I will definitely appreciate that effort.

Coda: Why did I write this article?

Based on the questions at the top, you might ask why I wrote this article. There's a simple answer to that: It's because I read a lot. I read a lot of technical writing in order to learn and form opinions. Many technical writers do not know why they are writing. I would like them to know two things: One, they might be writing in order to convince me of something or to teach me something; Two, if they want to convince or teach me, they need to work hard to make their writing readable.

Special thanks to Rita Rodrigues for feedback on an earlier draft of this post. The post is better written and more consistent with its intent for her feedback.

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