Most people think of writing as just the sentences and grammar, the punctuation and spelling. But it's way bigger than that.

We judge writing the way you'd judge someone at a speed dating event...holistically...by the CONTENT that's immediately apparent, by the FLOW of information, by the APPEARANCE, and by the overall STYLE....

First impressions matter! When you read any kind of workplace writing, print or on-screen, you should judge it holistically. Consider two things: your "level of interest" and your "level of effort.”

1.     Does the content grab you and keep you engaged while you read?

2.     How hard is it to find the good stuff?

Quite obviously, a writer's best chance to engage you depends on keeping your level of interest high and your level of effort low.

 

 Keeping the reader's level of interest high depends on the following:

·       Is the writer writing about an issue you care about? 

If not, obviously, your level of interest will not be high to begin with. Sometimes readers never will be interested, and sometimes they don't realize that they really should be interested. If a writer thinks you should be interested but you're not, the writer's challenge is to explain to you why you should care. If the writer can't do that, you’ll hit delete and move on every time.

 

·       Is the writer addressing all your pertinent questions? 

The writer needs to figure out all your questions about the issue in question and answer them all. We're all searching for the answers. Sometimes the reader has already asked the writer questions. But the writer must decide which of those questions are pertinent to the issue and which questions should be ignored. If the reader hasn't asked the writer any questions, the writer simply needs to be a mind reader--figure out the questions the reader actually has. This mind reading is one of the biggest challenge writers face. (BTW, we developed language so we wouldn't have to rely on reading each other's minds!)

 

·       Did the writer begin with the answer and then provide any necessary explanation? 

The other way around is usually tedious for readers. 

 

·       Did the reader cut all unnecessary information?

 

To keep the reader's level of effort as low as possible, the writer must design an effective reading experience for the reader.

To understand level of effort, imagine a front-page news story with the following headline: 5 Soldiers Killed in Iraqi Car Bombing. The reader will understand immediately what this story is about. And the first sentence will tell the reader who, what, when, where, how, and possibly why. The reader's level of effort is very low.

In fact, the information in news stories is arranged according to diminishing importance. Information at the beginning is more critical than information in the middle, which, in turn, is more important than information at the end.

Now imagine the same story as a five-page freshman English composition with no title or headline and the following first sentence: The fertile delta between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq is said to be the cradle of civilization. And ever since people began living together in large groups, there have been many conflicts and much fighting.

What if this essay then progressed through history showing major conflicts in this area and concluded, on page five, with the sentence, And just yesterday, five soldiers were killed in a car bombing in Iraq?

If a reader were interested in the news—what happened yesterday—the reader’s level of effort would be extremely high.

 

The goal in workplace writing is to keep your reader’s level of interest as high as possible and her level of effort as low as possible. 

Start using these ideas to evaluate the workplace writing you see. Does it keep your level of interest as high as possible and your level of effort as low as it possibly could? After a speedy read, would you agree to a date?

When you write, do you consider these two standards?