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Your Reader and Your Purpose

Plain language writing focuses on the needs of the reader. Instead of cramming in every bit of information the writer wants to share, the plain writer considers:

  • what needs the reader has
  • what information is essential
  • how it can be organized and expressed most clearly.
The focus on the reader is central to plain language writing. Everything - from the tone you use to your choice of vocabulary, from document style to document testing and revision - flows from the belief that you must write for the reader.

Putting the readers' needs first can be hard when you are used to writing from your own perspective. Ask yourself a series of questions that will help you focus your writing and get your message across most effectively.

Who is your audience?
Your document may have only one reader, for example a supervisor. Or, your document may have many readers. For example, they may be employees with different jobs who work in one department, or the general public.

Your audience may be made up of readers of all ages, or of one age group. A pamphlet for, teens for example, may be read by 13 to 19 year olds.

Your document may be read by someone waiting in line or by someone who is annoyed with you. Your reader may be very busy or emotionally upset.

Are you writing only for professionals? Is your document intended for working Canadians, seniors, or members of specific cultural groups? Is English or French their second language? Are their reading skills universally low or high?

Look at the characteristics most of your readers share. Decide on the most important audience for your document. Do some research to find out more about your readers.

An advantage to all this work early on in the writing process is that it can help you clarify how you should distribute your document.

Also remember that your readers are probably less familiar with your subject than you are. Keep this in mind as you write. It will help your decide what the reader needs to know instead of what you want to write.

Why are you writing this document?
Are you writing about something completely new? Give your reader all the background information needed to understand. Try to link the new information to things the reader may already know.

Are you trying to change peoples behavior? Make sure you mention how even small changes can bring benefits that are important to your reader.

Is the document a "how-to" text? Be sure it includes any background information needed to understand your instructions.

It may be hard to single out one purpose. But, a document with one primary focus is more likely to communicate its message effectively.

Here are some examples of the purposes documents can have:
  • to report
  • to ask
  • to inform
  • to influence
  • to explain
What do you want to say
Focus on what your reader wants and needs to know. Don't try to say more than you have to. Your readers' needs and wants should determine what information gets the most emphasis in your document.

How will your reader use this information?
How people use your document will help you decide how to organize the information in it.

  • Will your document be a quick reference tool?
  • Will your reader find your document in a display?
  • Is your reader supposed to do something after reading the document?
  • Is the reader supposed to remember certain information?
  • Is the reader supposed to agree with your point of view?
The answer to these questions affects how you present information. If you want your reader to come to a meeting, then the date and time of the meeting might be the first thing in the document. Information about the agenda and the other participants might be of secondary importance.

Try this:

Consider the characteristics of the readers in the following scenario.
Their department has been undergoing some reorganization. Some people in their sector will be moving to a new sector. Some new people will be joining their sector and some others will be laid off.
You have been asked to write a note to staff explaining these changes. How will these characteristics affect what you write?

Other resources online:

Writing User-Friendly Regulations
(U.S. National Performance Review)

"Engage Your Readers"
"Identify Your Audience"

The Plain Language Center in British Columbia
The Plain Language Process

Q:How can I find out more about my readers?

A:It may be possible to have telephone or in-person interviews with a few readers to gain a better understanding of their needs. Talk with staff who deal with the public. They'll know a lot about the public's information needs.