This page covers some of the basics of effective writing. Topics include Audience, Purpose, and Focus, The Seven C's of Writing, and Proofreading.
Audience, Purpose, and Focus
The first things you need to consider when writing anything are your:
- Audience (your readers)
- Purpose (the reason why you're writing)
- Focus (sticking to your purpose)
Audience: Who Are You Writing To?
Always consider what your readers need and want. You can analyze your audience in great depth, covering everything from demographics (their ages, education backgrounds, genders, and so on) to rhetorical situations (from what context the readers are coming from, what makes them interested now, and so on).
However, all that analysis can be very overwhelming. As you think about who your readers are, consider this easier approach to audience:
- When in doubt, write to somebody you know, not an abstract group, such as "kids" or "the elderly." Imagine writing directly to an actual kid or elderly person you know. It's a lot easier to write to a real person than to a theory.
- Never think of yourself as writing to "everybody," or a "general audience." If you don't have a clear idea about who should read your writing, then readers won't have a clear idea whether your writing is for them. When in doubt, at least attempt to define an audience. Even if you want to write an invitation to the 4-H fair, you can probably make your writing more compelling if you try to write to parents or potential 4-H members rather than "everybody."
Purpose: Why Are You Writing?
When it comes to purpose, make sure you consider both your own goals (what you want your writing to accomplish) and your readers' goals (what they want to get from reading your message).
Your goals ought be very simply defined and narrow. One way of finding your goal is to ask yourself, "When my readers are done with this document, what do I want them to do or remember?" Remember, it's far easier to accomplish one, narrow goal than several.
Of course, defining your own goals is easy. What about your readers' goals? For example, you may have a goal of teaching new rules to your readers, but why would they want to bother with them? Your readers will always be asking, "so what?" and "what's in it for me?" Whenever you write, make sure you address those central questions your readers will have.
Focus: Are You Sticking to Your Message?
Once you know who you are writing to, what you want readers to get from your writing, and what your readers want from you, it's important to stay focused on these things. There is nothing more frustrating to a reader than a lengthy anecdote or an example that seems to be off topic.
Make sure that everything you write can, in some way, be linked to your purpose.
It's also very important not to try to achieve too many of your goals with one piece. Just as you can't use a hammer for every job around the home, you shouldn't try to force a communication piece perform every job you need.
The Seven C's of Writing
Don Ranley, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism invented the Seven C's. His Seven C's provide a benchmark for checking the effectiveness of your communication.
- Make sure everything you write is accurate. Your credibility is at stake.
- Check everything, including names, dates, phone numbers, URLs, e-mail addresses, etc. Few things are as embarassing as misspelling a person's name (or making some other error) and most sources will thank you for double-checking. In particular, check website addresses or numbers. Just one letter off can be the difference between sending your readers to a site that they'll want to see and a frustrating error message.
- Make sure everything looks and reads like they belong together (from one paragraph to the next, from one page or issue to the next).
- Pay particular attenction to the way you use:
- Numbers and figures (ten or 10?) - Not sure which one to use? Use a style guide, such as The Associated Press Stylebook. The important thing is to have a consistent rule and stick to it.
- Titles (Dr., Professor, Ph.D.) - Use a style guide.
- Names (check for different spellings, especially in different places like stories and photo captions).
- Abbreviations (Main St. or Main Street?) - Use a style guide.
- Organization names (Department of Agricultural Communication or Agricultural Communication Servce?) - Find the proper name and stick to it.
- Headlines and other headings - Make sure they appear similar across pages and over time.
- Fonts - Be sure to use the same fonts consistently.
- Tags - Bylines, "legal statements," etc.
- Logos and graphics.
- Make everything easy to understand and find.
- If you must use technical terms or jargon, define them clearly.
- Don't make things too "inside". For example, somebody who has never been to the Purdue campus may think "Ross-Ade" is some kind of beverage. Don't assume readers know what you know. This is when knowing who your readers are is essential.
- Use simple language (you're trying to inform, not be clever).
- Answer your readers' "So what?" question. Just because the importance of your information is clear to you, does not mean it is clear to your readers.
- Avoid excessive background.
- Use active voice instead of passive voice (for details, see Grammar Trap: Active vs. Passive Voice) or the Purdue Online Writing Lab
- Use short sentences
- Place the most important information near the top of the page or story.
- Don't "save the best for last" - you're informing, not writing mysteries.
- Avoid slow-loading graphics in electronic media.
- If there's anything you think your readers might not understand, it's time to edit - this means, you should try to find out what your readers will or will not understand.
- Use easy-to-understand language, not flowery words.
- Use comparisons to help readers visualize the unfamiliar. A common mistake is to use an elaborate comparison that doesn't necessarily help because the comparison might be something unfamiliar, too.
- Provide at least two subheadings whenever you divide a larger section. If you're dividing up a section, then you must logically have at least two parts. If you can't come up wtih a second subheading, it indicates that the subheadings are, in that case, inappropriate and that you should consider rewriting your higher level heading instead.
- Include all necessary information.
- Provide specific examples to illustrate your points.
- Pay attention to the Five W's & H
- Who? - Tell readers who did it and who it affects.
- What? - Make the event, information, or news clear.
- When? - Include times and dates.
- Where? - Provide locations, especially of future events.
- Why? - Inform readers of the purpose behind the event or information.
- How? - Give readers a sense of proces behind the story.
- Make your writing interesting, but focus on content first.
- Look for new information to present.
- Look for new ways to present information.
Laura Hoelscher, an editor with Purdue Agricultural Communication, offers the following advice about proofreading, which is excerpted from her two-page handout, Writing Reminders (PDF: 511 KB):
It's a good idea (a very good idea) to let as much time as possible pass between writing and proofreading. The more time that passes, the more likely you are to catch any omissions, inconsistencies, or errors. Another helpful hint is to read what you have written out loud, because your ears will often catch what your eyes miss.
You should proofread for two reasons: to check what you have written and to check how you have written it. Because these two kinds of proofreading check for different things and require different kinds of attention, you should proofread at least twice.
What You Have Written
Reading what you have written involves looking carefully at your content. When proofreading for content, be sure to:
- Read your material word for word.
- Read, not for what you expect to see or what you meant to write, but for what you have actually written down - the more time you can allow to pass between writing and proofreading, the easier it is.
- Make sure the words you have on paper make sense together and say what you want them to say.
- Remember that even little words like prepositions, articles, and conjunctions cna affect your meaning.
How You Have Written
Reading how you have written involves looking carefully at your form. When proofreading for form, be sure to:
- Correct for grammatical errors.
- Make sure all your sentences are sentences and not fragments.
- Check your spelling. Use whatever spell check utility you have, but remember that spell checkers won't catch the kinds of typos and downright errors that spell other real words.
- Check for inconsistencies in person, number, tense, voice, tone, etc.
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