In my last blog, Thinking about Writing I, I talked about how one goes about planning a piece of writing. This time, I want to talk not so much about the what, but the who. Who will be reading what you write, and what will they do with “it”?
Communication is a two-way street
Unless we’re journaling, we’re writing for an audience and with a particular outcome in mind. This is the kernel of any communication: an exchange – with an emphasis on change. My scribbled diagram summarises the elements that make up any communication, written or verbal.
The change depends on the why: the intended outcome. The student writing a term paper wants a good grade; an advocacy group’s newsletter is to inform, raise awareness and probably also money. A business may want a combination of awareness, education and, of course, sales.
Each of those writers is writing for a different purpose. Will the writing style be the same for each of those?
You knew that, instinctively, didn’t you?
Writing style: what must writers consider?
In a business context, staff write emails to each other – colleagues and superiors. Critically, the marketing and communications department write copy for marketing and sales materials. This copy is used in a range of different ways: print and TV advertisements, email shots and for the internet. Multinationals have to consider their target customers in different territories.
To keep things simple, I’m going to focus on writing that companies want customers read.
That sounds simple, right?
Yes, on the face of it, it is, but that’s because we writers know our customers (clients). But do we know our client’s customers?
The short answer is sometimes. The longer answer is probably not, and as writers its our job to look carefully at our briefs and, if need be, read between the lines.
How do we read between the lines?
One of the reasons our clients “forget” to tell us about their customers is because they know them so well that they assume that we’ll know. Often we can work it out from the brief.
Would you write a product brochure or landing page for a technical component – like crane spares – the same way as you would about a pain killer?
Business to business
For the technical product, we’d be safe in assuming that the customer – another business – would understand the technical jargon used to describe the product and its benefits. Techies and bean counters are au fait with the often rather wooden copy associated with their fields and just want to cut to the chase. The only explainers in the copy are the essential ones that encourage an action. In the case below, from the website of a multinational crane company, the intended outcome: selling crane upgrades.
Safe assumptions that the writer can make: the reader represents a decision maker in business who is at least sufficiently competent in English, and in his field, to cope with the jargon. The language is generally passive, punchy and direct.
Business to customer
Pain is intensely personal, as is the customer. Pharmaceutical brands brands wish to communicate directly with the person who uses the product. The person in pain. Modern technology now enables companies to focus their internet-based communication on specific territories and although the international lingua franca may be English, customers may be first, second or even third language English speakers and readers.
As an aside, and if you’ve read other bits of this website, you’ll know that I admire polyglots.
Understanding that one’s reader is not a native English speaker must influence one’s writing style. Plain English that one’s peer will understand, as opposed to simple English that a child will understand.
The example below, is a snippet from a website for a paracetamol brand.
The intended outcomes of copy on this page are to –
- be search engine friendly and
- educate prospective customers about toothache pain,
- inform about paracetamol as an effective pain reliever, as well as
- encourage customers to choose their brand.
But that’s not all
The small print (there is always small print) in the brief mentioned that the web pages should be searchable from two particular territories. Neither of these is an English speaking country.
Writing for second (or third) language English readers – some tips
I’ve already mentioned some of the most obvious tips:
- using active rather than passive language, e.g.
- the painkiller was bought by the customer
- the customer bought the painkiller
- integrating technical terms into the copy in a way that explains it
- …tablets contain paracetamol and two excipients...
- In addition to paracetamol, the tablets contain two excipients or inactive ingredients…
- Shun the -tion
Don’t turn verbs into nouns. In other words, you decide rather than take a decision
- Cure yourself of the long sentence disease
This is a tough one. It takes a great deal of practise. However, there are times that long sentences are both necessary and appropriate – as is passive language. A reminder and two tips:
- One idea = one sentence
- Count the words, keeping them to between 15 and 20 per sentence.
- Vary the lengths of your sentences.
- Talk to your reader, using every day language – it will be familiar to them
- Don’t be afraid to use you and we. Doing this, as I have done, draws in and engages the reader. With practise, it’s neither personal nor unprofessional.
- Conversational versus colloquial
- Conversational writing is accessible because, as the word suggests, we write the same way as we would talk in a conversational setting. This makes the copy easier to follow. Writing as you would speak, makes it natural to integrate an explanation of a new term or technical jargon. Go back and look at the paracetamol example again.
- Conversational does not mean using slang or colloquialisms:
It wouldn’t wash to suggest to the customer that she chucks the tablet into a glass of water and swooshes it round until it dissolves! On the other hand, it would be appropriate to tell her to put the tablet into a glass of water and stir it until it dissolves. And notice: no exclamation mark…
I’ve not written about writing for a while. For the most part, I now write instinctively, and as I keep on labouring, based on the brief. The impetus to write this was on the back of a conversation with a client in which I explained that the way I’d written for them was based on reading between the lines of that broad brief.
It was a conscious decision to use plain, somewhat conversational English.
Contact me if you’d like me to write for you