Who are my readers?

Having decided what your purpose is, you now need to identify your reader. Who are you writing the document for? The more you know about your readers, the more effectively you will focus and organise your writing.

Whatever you are writing you need to think about who’s going to read it. Sometimes you will know the reader personally which makes it easier to answer these questions, but often you may have to guess or make some assumptions to make sure you write appropriately to them.

How senior are they compared to you? How formal do you need to be? What’s their educational level, what’s their background knowledge of the subject?

What mood might they be in when they read your document? What’s the psychological impact on them? (We’ll consider this in more detail in the topic: Getting the tone right).

Ask yourself questions such as:

  • What do they need to know – what is of real interest to them? You don’t need to tell them everything you know
  • How will they use this information? Will they need to re-use the information in a presentation or simply do what you’ve asked?
  • What are their attitudes to the information and to me? Is it vital information they’ve been waiting for and you’re the expert, or are you unknown to them and it’s the first time you’re approaching them?
  • What impact will your writing have on them? Will it affect their career or just change where you go for lunch?
  • Where will they read the information – on screen, on a phone, on paper? This will affect how much you can present to them
  • When is a good time for them to receive this information – are they right in the middle of an important project and your document will be a distraction or are they urgently waiting for it?

List all the potential readers for your document, what you know about them and what they will want to get from reading it.

For instance, for a report on the project you’ve just completed your readers may be:

  • Another colleague – who wants to know the methodology, how to repeat the work, detailed results and conclusions
  • Your manager – who needs a record of the work in order to check its validity and to plan similar future projects
  • The Managing Director – who only wants a brief summary of what was done, results, conclusions and recommendations

You’ll have to organise the text to offer a range of reading strategies so the different readers can find what they need (we’ll come to planning next).
Or you might simply be writing an email to a group of colleagues to arrange a date for a meeting, and the readers are all of the similar status and doing the same job. You will need to make the arrangements clear, but everyone is likely to need similar information.

Your readership and impact may be wider than you think if the text is passed on.
An email can be forwarded to people you had not imagined would read it. If you’ve written a very informal email to a colleague using slang and omitting punctuation, do you really want that passed onto a senior manager or a customer?
Written documents can be legally binding (legal cases are now coming up where even twitter and facebook comments have been used as evidence) so you need to consider what you write and how it will be interpreted.
Reports may stay in the system for a long time but people may still have to act on your recommendations so they need to have enough information to adequately understand your recommendations or decision making at the time.
You are an ambassador for your organisation and can create your own reputation!