Know your audience
Writing for the intended audience usually involves learning as much about them as you can. A member of the intended audience should be able to tell that the material is intended to be read by them.
There are a variety of ways of doing so including recruiting some members of the audience to help you, going on-site to see how they will actually access or use the material, user-testing early drafts, following through to see how the audience actually uses what you prepare, following up with key informants.
Clarity of purpose
It stands to reason that if you are not sure why you are preparing the material – what you want the audience to learn or be able to do as a result of reading your material – the reader will be confused.
Logical organization and structure
The content of the material should flow from one topic to the next in an order that makes sense – to your reader! Put yourself in your reader’s position – you’ll know what that is from your earlier efforts to get to know them. Then, structure the content to fit how the audience will approach it. First things first. Make that structure obvious to the reader – using headings and other aids consistently. Providing information in point form or lists may be helpful. Arranging information in the order of steps to be taken may be suitable in some cases. Test against users’ ability to find what they are looking for.
The tone you adopt in preparing material will influence how the reader responds to it. If you are too formal and serious, they may back away from the text, fearful of the message it sends. On the other hand, being too flip will make the reader think you are not taking them or their problems seriously. The use of cartoons and other images can affect the tone. They may welcome the reader into the text. But they might also make the reader feel she is being patronized. Ditto for words of encouragement.
Plain language writing is often reduced to the notion that all you have to do is use simple vocabulary. While simplifying words, and even the information itself, is part of the project, your efforts will be less fruitful than if you have followed a more substantial process to identify and meet the needs of your intended audience. Much is written on simple measures, like using the active voice, addressing the reader in the second person, watching out for gender and ethnic biases, avoiding legal jardon, and the like. References in the side-bar will be helpful with those issues.
Readability tests are helpful at this stage of the writing process. The Flesch test still seems to hold the high ground but other tests are also available. Flesh now has two scales. One scale is for readability – sets the grade level reading ability needed. Grade 8 is sometimes taken to be a standard to aim for. The other test is for ease of reading. In this case, a high score -70 or 80 – is taken to be easy reading. Neither test or any other should be taken as the final word. What maters is whether the intended reader can, in fact, get what they need from your document.
Images, charts, diagrams, checklists, and other means of expression that suit the audience and topic. If possible, test your ideas with members of the intended audience.
Design is often an after-thought. Something that is done at the end of the process to make the document ‘pretty’. However, design discussions should be an on-going part of the development process – something you discuss with prospective users from the start of the project.
We never seem to have enough funding to do as much testing of our drafts as we would like. However, where possible, user-testing can make our efforts that much more effective.