This discussion of audience awareness begins with a quote from cognitive psychologist Ronald Kellogg, author of The Psychology of Writing, who wrote: “The primary psychological difference between being a novice writer and an advanced writer is an awareness of audience.”
Dr. Kellogg is talking about the ability to do 4 things:
- to see your writing through another’s eyes
- to consider how that someone might interpret what you wrote
- to anticipate any missteps that might confuse the reader
- to use visual techniques to make your writing more reader friendly.
Those four points can be summarized by the simple phrase--
Writer-Based Prose vs. Reader-Based Prose
The names tell the story. WBP focuses mainly on the writer. In other words, "Hey, if it makes sense to me, then it’s fine."
RBP is just the opposite. Reader-based prose focuses on the reader and does everything it can to communicate clearly and effectively to a specific audience.
You may have heard of this famous rule about writing: “There are no rules in writing. The audience rules.”
In other words, in reader-based prose you do anything and everything you can to make it easy for the reader to connect to your words and understand your message.
How Do I Achieve Reader-Based Prose?
This lesson discusses four basic techniques:
Technique #1: WRIT-FM
In this technique, you the writer tune into a radio station called WRIT-FM, which stands for “What’s Really in It—For Me?” One of the cold hard lessons of workplace writing is that every reader asks some variation of this question whenever they pick up anything you’ve written:
- What’s really in it for me and my job (and by extension, my family)?
- What’s really in it for my company?
- What’s really in it to increase productivity, profits, morale?
Please note that none of those questions involved you, your feelings, your motivations, your problems, or anything else about you as a writer. Either the piece of writing offers benefits to your audience or it doesn’t.
When writing in the workplace, your employment, to a significant degree, is riding on your ability to focus on your audience and offer a clear answer to WRIT-FM.
Technique #2: Establish Common Ground or Common Goals.
This is also called getting reader "buy-in" or creating motivation for the reader to want to know and understand what you have to say.
For example, here is the beginning of a writer-based prose memo:
Beginning immediately, all employees must refer any media request for information on the Fair Streets initiative to Pat Lidell, Director of Communications.
Thank you for your cooperation.
Clearly, this writer doesn’t have much regard for the reader, and barks an order like an Army drill instructor.
However, in reader-based prose, the writer considers the reader first and tries to establish a meaningful connection, providing motivation to read and, more importantly, motivation to take the desired action.
Here is the same message rewritten in reader-based prose:
Congratulations to everyone on the successful launch of our latest public housing initiative, Fair Streets. Your excellent work has generated considerable media interest.
In order to build on this success, we’re asking you to refer any media inquiry you might receive to Pat Lidell, our Director of Communications. Pat and her team will ensure a consistent message that will continue to spread the word about Fair Streets and ensure it has the impact we all desire.
Thank you for your cooperation.
In the reader-based prose example, the writer establishes common ground, addresses everyone as a valuable team member, and thus provides positive motivation to comply with the request.
Technique #3: Prefer “You” over “I.”
“I” is the pronoun of writer-based prose, but “you” tells readers that they are the focus and you will attempt to answer that all-important question: WRIT-FM, what’s really in it for me? Here’s an example:
Dear Ms. Brown:
I have received your phone inquiry about available dates for your daughter’s wedding. We have researched our calendar and find that the dates of June 1 and June 15 are available.
We can host the bride and groom and their guests on this very important occasion. I know you will find our facilities well suited for spring weddings for you and your guests.
If you are still interested, please give me a call to schedule a date and time that will be convenient to see our lovely facility. We look forward to partnering with you to make your daughter’s day a memorable one.
Clearly, the writing is as much about the author (8 first person pronouns) and her lovely facility as it is about the client, the client's daughter, her guests, and arguably one of most important days in a family’s life. A rewrite into reader-based prose would emphasize the reader by maintaining a “you” focus:
Dear Ms. Brown:
Thank you for your phone inquiry about available dates for your daughter’s wedding. It is an honor to be considered a potential host for such an important event for your family.
Good news: June 1 and June 15 are available! Please call when convenient to arrange a personal tour of the facilities, which so many other families have enjoyed for their spring weddings.
Rest assured, our goal is to partner with you to make your daughter’s day a flawless and memorable one. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
We’ve gone from 8 first person pronouns to 2, a reduction of 75%. But more important, using reader-based prose means that the communication now:
- Is positive
- Shows an understanding of Ms. Brown’s needs and psychological state
- Focuses on benefits to Ms. Brown, not how proud the writer is of the facility
Technique #4: Use Visual Cues.
Visual cues include keeping paragraphs short (remember, this is business writing) and highlighting key information, especially in lists (numbered or bulleted) or even in a small table.
In the workplace, everyone is busy. We want what we need as quickly as we can get it. If that means we can skim something to get what we need instead of reading it, then all the better. Here is an example of writer-based prose that does not use cues:
Dear Director Clark:
The American Red Cross is planning its annual safety pool party and would like to invite you and your Teen Center staff to join. The event will be held on Saturday, July 23, at our outdoor pool. Information tables will be set up in the Pavilion to discuss heat and water safety.
If you wish to participate, we will have a reserved table for you to share information regarding your organization. We ask you to provide some of your volunteers to help set up, serve food, and monitor games. Please let us know by Friday, July 1.
The invitation consists of two paragraphs of plain text, each about 40 words. The reader must dig into the lines of text to find out what is going on and what is expected. Now ask yourself if the following reader-based version of the letter would be clearer and more likely to yield a positive response.
Dear Director Clark:
You and your organization are known for the emphasis you place on summer safety for teens. That’s why we hope you and your staff can join us for the American Red Cross:
Annual Pool Safety Party
Saturday, July 23
American Red Cross Aquatic Center
If you can participate, an information table will be reserved for you in the Pavilion to share information about the outstanding resources offered by the Teen Center.
We also ask that your volunteers help to set up, serve food, and monitor games.
Please let us know by Friday, July 1 if the Teen Center can be a part of this fun day.
With shorter paragraphs, key information does not get lost. Also, centering is used as a cue to call out the name, date and location of the event and bolding emphasizes the request of a reply.