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When you read, do you read each and every word? Do you skim over the document and try to identify key terms and themes? Do you focus on numbers and statistics, or ignore the text and go straight to the pictures or embedded video? Because people read in many diverse ways, you as a writer will want to consider how your audience may read and analyze your document.
Ever since Benjamin Franklin said that “time is money,”Franklin, B. (1748). Advice to a young tradesman, written by an old one. Philadelphia, PA: B. Franklin and D. Hall. business managers have placed a high value on getting work done quickly. Many times, as a result, a document will be skimmed rather than read in detail. This is true whether the communication is a one-paragraph e-mail or a twenty-page proposal. If you anticipate that your document will be skimmed, it behooves you to make your main points stand out for the reader.
In an e-mail, use a “subject” line that tells the reader the gist of your message before he or she opens it. For example, the subject line “3 p.m. meeting postponed to 4 p.m.” conveys the most important piece of information; in the body of the e-mail you may explain that Wednesday’s status meeting for the XYZ project needs to be postponed to 4 p.m. because of a conflict with an offsite luncheon meeting involving several XYZ project team members. If you used the subject line “Wednesday meeting” instead, recipients might glance at their in-box, think, “Oh, I already know I’m supposed to attend that meeting”, and not read the body of the message. As a result, they will not find out that the meeting is postponed.
For a longer piece of writing such as a report or proposal, here are some techniques you can use to help the reader grasp key points.
Imagine how unhappy you would be if you submitted a report and your audience came away with a message completely different from what you had intended. For example, suppose your manager is considering adopting a specific new billing system in your office and has asked you to report on the pros and cons of this system. You worked hard, gathered plenty of information, and wrote a detailed report which, in your opinion, gave strong support for adopting the new system.
However, the first few pages of your report described systems other than the one under consideration. Next, you presented the reasons not to implement the new system. Throughout the report, embedded in the body of several different paragraphs, you mentioned the advantages offered by the new system; but they were not grouped together so that you could emphasize them with a heading or other signpost for the reader. At the end of the report, you reviewed the current billing system and stated that few problems were encountered with it.
When you delivered your report, the manager and colleagues who received it missed your most important information and decided not to consider the new system any further. Worse, your manager later criticized you for spending too much time on the report, saying it was not very informative. Situations like this can be avoided if you provide a clear organizational framework to draw your reader’s attention to your main points.
Analyzing is distinct from reading. When you read, you attempt to grasp the author’s meaning via words and symbols, and you may come away with a general emotional feeling about what the writer has written instead of an arsenal of facts. When you analyze a document, you pay more attention to how the author assembled the information to present a coherent message. Business writing often involves communication via words and symbols in ways that meet audience expectations; in many cases, the audience needs to be able to analyze the content, and reading is secondary. For this reason, a solid organizational pattern will greatly enhance your document’s effectiveness.
Logical organization is important to promote reader understanding and analysis.