You're a Host for Your Readers


This week, I've been thinking a lot about the relationship between writers and readers. Together, writers and readers create and use meaning: writers provide the information and tell readers what's important about it, and readers apply their interpretation and walk away with an understanding. This means that as writers, we must do our best to ensure readers interpret our writing as we'd intended.

"Welcome to my document; I'll be your host."

What if we approached writing documents and longer emails the way we approach hosting guests in our home or at an event? After all, our readers are our guests or visitors, in a way. We can potentially help them understand our writing by showing them how to use our document or email, and how to connect the thoughts within it. To do this, we need to make sure they know how to find what they need, by helping them learn to get around our document and navigate.

"Let me show you around."

What would this mean, in a report, a proposal, or a multi-paragraph email? What would it look like? Where on the page would we do our hosting? By hosting and showing a reader around, we also increase the chances they'll interpret things according to our intention.

When we host someone in our home, we take responsibility for making sure they know how to find what they need. Maybe in the case of a party, that means the kitchen and the bathroom. In the case of a report, it might mean data or tables, evidence or diagrams.

To support our readers like good hosts, we have quite a few options. We can show readers what means the most, how ideas are related, or how one topic connects to another. We can help them navigate our longer emails or documents by providing signals like topic sentences, transitions, headings, and sentences we've written specifically to help readers understand what's going on in the document or email.

While many navigation tools and signals come into play when we format our document or email (creating headings, using font sizes to convey hierarchies of information, adding bullets instead of ridiculously long lists, etc.), we can also make writing choices to support our readers in these ways. Let's check out a couple of examples.

Without Navigation: Organizations using renewable energy may qualify for incentive programs. They can apply for federal grants or energy credits, which are available through various departments. Often, an organization can get tax credits annually.

With Navigation: Organizations using renewable energy may qualify for incentive programs. Some of these programs, listed below, offer grants and energy credits. Organizations can apply by following the provided links.

The navigation suggestions provided above help readers understand what's offered in the document or email, and how it's arranged. This makes it easier for the reader to pay attention to what they're looking for.

Without Signals: Our new HR manager has years of experience in both the public and private sectors. They'll bring new insights and perspectives to our team.

With Signals: Our new HR manager has years of experience in both the public and private sectors. Based on this background, they'll bring new insights and perspectives to our team.

The signal above helps a reader understand the relationship between the information before the signal and the information after the signal. Without it, readers aren't sure.

As hosts, we can also set a mood for our readers. We want them to know whether our message should be received with urgency, friendliness, humor, or seriousness. We can set a mood through word choice -- usually, through well-chosen verbs. Stay tuned next week, when we look further into choosing verbs to create mood for our visiting readers. We'll learn to ask ourselves, as much as possible, "Is there a verb for that?" when we're writing.

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