So here’s the scoop on readers:
Collectively, on average, overall…readers aren’t all that good at reading. They miss things. They tune out. They get distracted. They lose their place.
But we writers shouldn’t get upset with them. For one thing, we are them. For another, we are in their debt—when a reader reads our work, they are doing us a favor, not the other way around. Even when they aren’t paying close attention, they’re still doing us a favor, since they could just not read at all.
And can we blame readers? In the professional world especially, there is so much text to get through each day—emails, memos, texts, reports, proposals, agendas, specs, instructions, and much more—and so much of it is poorly written or overly long or unclear, it’s no wonder readers fail to notice the key sentence we buried midway through the third paragraph on page two.
Smart writers don’t complain about this state of things. Instead, they work with what they have. Maybe you’ve heard this old adage about intros, bodies, and conclusions:
Tell them what you’ll tell them.
Tell it to them.
Tell them what you told them.
This repetition is insurance against distracted readers—if they forgot what the introduction said and got distracted during the body, at least the conclusion will remind them of the most important points. Same if they read the intro and then their attention flagged long before the end.
But in professional writing, we have many more tools than just intros, bodies, and conclusions to help readers make quick sense of our text. This reading will help you understand how readers operate and what tools you have to manage their attention. It covers the following:
- How Readers Notice Things
- Big Chunks, Big Formatting
- Little Chunks, Smaller Formatting
- Hiding Information
How Readers Notice Things
The first thing we need to recognize is that readers read workplace documents in a different way that, say, novels. A novel is a narrative, and it demands to be read front to back, in order, with no parts skipped lest the story stop making sense. But a 20-page recommendation report isn’t a strict narrative. It’s various sections—from the executive summary and intro to the detailed explanation of the project’s data collection phase to the weighing of pros and cons in order to make a final recommendation about a course of action—are each geared toward different audiences with different needs, and the document needs to be set up to serve all those different readers, allowing each to forge their own path through the document, skipping unnecessary sections and digging in to find key information.
Even if such a report has only a single intended reader, a smart writer knows that while some of the report needs to transmit key information to that reader, a lot of its content won’t be closely read at first or at all—it might be there merely as a paper trail or record, or it will only be revisited down the line if its recommendation is adopted.
It helps to use an analogy to characterize readers of professional documents. Think of them as people visiting a library for the first time. At first, they walk around the space, not seeing any individual book or even shelf. Instead, they are concerned only with the biggest picture: the layout of the entire building. Nonfiction over there, they note, and fiction in that room. Children’s books off to the left, DVDs on the right.
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Having gotten the lay of land, they then circle in on the area that most interests them, now paying attention to the lines of shelving units filling, say, the nonfiction collection. They look for those signs on the ends of each row that specify which Dewey decimals or topics are contained there, and when they find the span that most interests them, they might walk down that aisle, skimming their eyes over entire shelves of books at once.
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When the titles on a shelf seem promising, only then will they stop walking, bend down, and read off the titles of each book one by one, and if one is interesting, they might pull it off the shelf, open it, and consider the actual pages inside.
If only reading business reports were as fun as wandering a library.
Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash
Interpreting the Analogy
This action of purposeful skimming that a library browser employs, moving through successive layers of specificity to find a book to check out, is very similar to how many readers approach long or complex business documents:
- At first, they look at the table of contents or flip through the pages and note the first-level headings.
- Once they understand the landscape, they may skip straight to the section that’s most relevant to them, diving into to see if any second-level headings can help them make sense of that section.
- Then they might skim a paragraph here or there before committing to reading a passage straight through.
- Lastly, they might repeat this process of circling above the document and then diving in to find relevant info several times.
Knowing that readers use our documents in this way enables us to better serve their needs, and one of the big ways we do this is by chunking information deliberately and signaling how we’ve arranged those chunks with formatting.
Big Chunks, Big Formatting
Long, complicated documents like business reports require lots of chunking and significant formatting to show it. Here are several techniques you can use.
Headings & Sections
Perhaps the most obvious things to use are headings, like the ones used in this document to break it into sections, or groups of paragraphs on a unified topic. Headings are nice because they reveal the underlying structure of a document in such an obvious and unmistakable way. In fact, in a carefully constructed document, you can easily use the headings to construct an outline of the entire document. For example, this article’s headings reveal the following outline of the whole:
- How Readers Notice Things
- An Analogy
- Interpreting the Analogy
- Big Chunks, Big Formatting
- Headings & Sections
- Forecasting Language
- Little Chunks, Smaller Formatting
- Paragraph Breaks
- Tables and Figures
- Text Alterations
- Other Alterations
- Hiding Information
Notice that I’ve employed multiple levels of headings here, which reflects the length and complexity of this article. In shorter or simpler documents, a single level of heading might be enough, and in even more complex documents, more levels may be needed.°
When multiple levels of headings are used, we usually classify them with a number. So the top-level of heading, which would correspond to the Roman numeral level in a formal outline, would be called a “level-1 heading” or a “first-level heading.” The next level (capital letters in an outline) would be a “level-2 heading” or “second-level heading,” and so on.
The important thing to remember about headings is that they need to be consistently applied in a nested structure. That is, any level-3 headings must appear within a level-2 heading section, and level-2 headings must occur within a level-1 heading section. You can’t jump straight from level-1 to level-3.
Also, when formatting, the visual impact of each new level of heading should be significantly less than the one before it. On Grover’s English this is achieved like this:
Level 1 Heading
Level 2 Heading
Level 3 Heading
While headings provide obvious visual cues about the structure of a document, they work best when paired with forecasting language embedded usually at the beginnings or ends of sections. Forecasting language means sentences that directly state what is coming next in a document, like the last paragraph of the introduction to this article.
Because readers may be skipping around or skimming quickly, forecasting statements serve to reorient them wherever they land. Paired with a clear structure of headings, it makes a document easily navigable, like having Google Maps talk to you while the road signs outside the car confirm what it’s saying.
Overt forecasting language is definitely not sexy, and it might be the kind of thing that teachers and advocates of style push you away from in your writing. However, in business writing, where usability trumps style, it’s expected and encouraged.
Little Chunks, Smaller Formatting
Documents of all sizes can benefit from the following chunking and formatting techniques.
The basic unit of chunking/formatting in any document is the paragraph. A paragraph is usually a group of sentences that cohere because they are all about a single topic or they develop a single strand of an argument, and paragraphs are clearly formatted to appear separate from other paragraphs, even from a distance. In academic writing we signal a new paragraph by indenting its first line; in professional writing, we typically use block formatting, which swaps the indentation for a blank line above and below the paragraph.°
As the basic unit of chunking in a document, paragraphs should be used to your advantage. Compared to academic writing, the average size of a paragraph in professional documents in significantly smaller. This reflects and accommodates the hurried and unfocused nature of many readers.
As a paragraph drags on, a reader’s attention flags. The first sentence gets all their focus, the next slightly less, the next even less, and so on until a paragraph break, when they snap to attention once again. By using more, shorter paragraphs, you help a reader maintain a more consistent level of attention. Likewise, you can strategically place key information in the first lines of paragraphs where they are most likely to be noticed.
Really key info can even be placed in a one-sentence paragraph all on its own.
We often signal a sudden transition or turn in the direction of an argument with phrases like “on the other hand,” “conversely,” or simply “however.” While these signal phrases are a great way to help the reader mark the flow of ideas, if buried in the second half of a larger paragraph, they can easily be missed. So another thing to keep in mind is that, if you have a key transition, you might want to have it occur right after a paragraph break, when the reader’s attention is fresh.
On the other hand, too many short paragraphs can make a text seem choppy and rhythmless, like driving on a bumpy, rutted dirt road.°
Lists are a great way of pulling key points out of a paragraph and pointing at them with formatting Take a paragraph like this:
In order to resolve the current situation we should cancel the program and then carefully review the data to see what can be learned. Then we could revise and restart the program, incorporating those changes.
We can use forecasting language and a series to create a list-like sentence structure that’s easier to digest:
In order to resolve the current situation we should do four things: cancel the program, carefully review the data to see what can be learned, revise the program based on our findings, and then restart the program incorporating those changes.
We can go further by using formatting—in this case a numbered list—to make the visual layout reflect the nature of the content:
In order to resolve the current situation we should do four things:
- Cancel the program
- Carefully review the data to see what can be learned
- Revise the program based on our findings
- Restart the program incorporating those changes
Here, a numbered list is appropriate because the items are the list are meant to be performed sequentially. When the order of items on a list is unimportant, a bulleted list is appropriate.
Things I want for my birthday:
- Art supplies
A checklist format strongly implies that the reader needs to complete or obtain the items on the list, though an order is not implied:
- □ Clean break room
- □ Order office supplies
- □ Turn in receipts
Tables and Figures
Oftentimes the best way to present complex information is not in sentences and paragraphs at all but in a visual.
To draw attention to key words and phrases within paragraphs, you can employ various alterations to the text itself. The safest and most common of these are bold and italics.
The visual weight of bold text draws the eye to it, even in the middle of a long paragraph. It can ensure that a key word is noticed or draw attention to an easily misread phrase, but you need to be careful as it can invoke a unintentionally stern tone:
It is imperative that employees do not bring guests to the holiday party.
That said, bold is almost always preferable to all caps, which feels like one is screaming at the reader:
It is imperative that employees DO NOT bring guests to the holiday party.°
Italics are less useful than bold because, from a distance, they tends to make text disappear. A reader skimming or scanning quickly through a document is less likely to notice most italicized words and phrases if they are used within larger paragraphs.
If a reader is actually reading, however, italics signals to them that a word or phrase is being used with special emphasis.
You can also change the color, size, position, and even the typeface of a particular string of text to make it visually stand out, though all these alterations—including bold and italics—should be used sparingly because the more often they are used, the less effective they become. They tend to make writing feel less formal, so be aware of that possible impact on your tone.
You can combine text alterations with lists to make things especially easy for your reader to parse:
We are adopting three key values to guide future projects:
- Trust: Training will be provided to help team leaders develop more trust between team members as well as between members and leadership.
- Accountability: A new reporting system is being developed to ensure the anonymity of whistleblowers.
- Snacks: The budget for refreshments is being tripled.
In addition to drawing the reader’s attention toward key information and chunks using formatting, you might also want to push information away from a reader’s attention at times.
You can think of a reader’s attention like their appetite. A person only has so much room in their stomach before they can’t eat anymore, only so much attention to spare before they are tapped out. Giving a reader 25 pages of dense text—even if it is chunked into sections and carefully formatted, and even if they are skimming liberally—might fill them up before they notice all the things you’d like them to, just like how I fill up on bread and water long before the food I ordered arrives.
Moving the less important content off the table, therefore, can help you preserve their attention for the most important things. How do we do that?
Parentheses are perhaps the softest way to deemphasize information (they hiding content in plain sight, deemphasizing it in the reader's view).
Footnotes move less important information out of the flow of the main text and down to the bottom of the page, often in a significantly smaller font. Plus, a few footnotes can make a document look sophisticated.°
Endnotes move footnoted information even farther away, to the end of the document. This can significantly reduce the amount of text on a page, but it can also force a reader to have to flip back and forth incessantly.
An appendix is an entire section of extra information that comes at the end of a longer document or report, which can be great for supporting data—often in table or graph form—that needs to be included but that would bog down the flow of the main text unnecessarily.
In emails and other electronic communication, attachments allow you to include needed information but in a separate document.
It might seem like these chunking and formatting techniques are only useful in 30-page reports, but you will find they can be surprisingly useful—and work surprisingly well—even in 4-sentence emails.
Another benefit of being deliberate about chunking and formatting is that it will improve the structure of your writing. You'll more readily notice gaps in your reasons or places where the logic or flow of your writing doesn't hold together.° Over time, you'll develop the ability to think of the information you want to present in tiers of importance and arrange it accordingly, emphasizing key details and shuffling less important things off to the side of the reader's attention.
You'll also grow to appreciate writers who do these things for you.