Writing for Your Reader – Put the Audience First

A recent article in Writers’ Forum Magazine looked at a new book about understanding readers, what writers can do to encourage them to read their work and the importance of writing for the audience.

“The Reader’s Brain”, by J. Yellowlees Douglas, sets out five tips to bear in mind when writing, based on the science of reading and the “science behind the way we assimilate information when we read” to make words easier to absorb and remember.

Writing for Your Reader:

Writing1. Clarity: Words need to be set out in the most logical order, because human brains expect to see cause followed by effect. This applies to sentences as well as stories. Here’s an example:

“Philip dived under the café counter. Bullets shattered the mirror above it.” “Bullets shattered mirror above the café counter. Philip dived under it.”

The second sentence puts the effects before the cause – the bullets have hit the mirror, and then Philip hides – which is not the logical progress of the events. Write in the active tense whenever possible.

2. Continuity: It’s important that sentences follow logically on from one another. Readers predict what’s coming next, and abrupt changes confuse them. If you’ve written a gritty detective novel set in Edinburgh, you wouldn’t add in a rom-com scene. In non-fiction, don’t abruptly change subject or tone of voice. Douglas explains that readers expect the most important fact at the end of the sentence – this is particularly applicable to fiction.

3. Coherence: Any piece of writing must be logically structured so that the reader can absorb it easily. A writer needs to state at the beginning exactly what the text is about. In fiction, this means outlining characters, genre, time and location. If you’re writing a blog post or article, the introduction is the place to set this out. As we know, readers will often skim paragraphs to get to the main points, so you may choose to structure these to establish each item at the start.writing for your reader

4. Concision: By this, Douglas means getting to the point using as few words as possible. Resist the temptation to use long words, technical jargon or hated business speak. The words you do use must have meaning and your readers want to engage with you. Don’t put them off by trying to be too clever.

5. Cadence: How the words sound. Even when they’re not verbalised, we “hear” the words in our heads, so pay attention to the sentence rhythms. Vary your sentence length and use conjunctions where possible. Try not to start a sentence with the same word each time – i.e. “we”, “I” or “you”.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts about not repeating words in the same paragraph, but don’t spend too long looking for an alternative just for the sake of it – you could confuse the reader if they think you’re referring to different things. The article gives the example of using “lounge”, “sitting room” and “front room” to describe the same room each time.

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