You Are Not Your Reader: Functional Writing, Part 1

"What the hell is 'circular 175' anyway?"

“What the hell is ‘circular 175’ anyway?”

This is the first in a series on functional writing, based on my time writing copy for a large airline website, and my general experience as a writer and journalist. These articles are aimed at giving non-writers an idea of how to produce better, more useful functional content.

When you’re very close to a project, it’s easy to become consumed by it, have it take over your every waking thought – become obsessed. And that’s fine. Ok, maybe you’re a little crazy, and after a while your left eye starts to twitch, but so what – you’re getting the job done.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t put you in a very good position when it comes to communicating with other people – specifically, those who are not involved in your project. You, as an insider, have all the context, all the knowledge – and the outsiders, your audience, have none.

What’s clear as day to you is clear as mud to them. What needs no explanation for you, your audience couldn’t understand in a month of Sundays. And so, confusion reigns – and your audience switches off.

This is one of the most common problems I’ve seen in a lot of functional writing, from instruction manuals, to FAQs, to industry websites. So much copy is written by insiders, and seemingly for insiders, too.

Assuming you’re not creating a niche product, solely for people with the same knowledge and experience as you, this is a problem. The first step, before writing a single word of copy, is: work out who your readers are not. (Spoiler: they’re not you. That’s who they’re not.)

This might seem really obvious, but it’s very easy to forget – as should be evident from the many, many incomprehensible contracts, instruction manuals and official communiques out there in the world. Here’s an excellent example, courtesy of the Campaign for Plain English:

‘As you may already be aware the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) have now revoked the LGPS (Amendment) (no 2) Regulations 2004 from the 3rd August 2005, the revocation being retrospective to the 1st April 2005, the operative date of these amendment Regulations. Attached is a copy of circular 175 regarding the revocation. As these Regulations have been revoked retrospectively to 1st April 2005, the position is now the same as before the 1st April 2005 i.e: as if the LGPS (Amendment) (no 2) Regulations 2004 had never existed.’

In theory, that’s about pensions. In practice, I defy anyone who isn’t already familiar with the LGPS and circular 175 from the ODPM (whatever they may be) to understand any of this. And of course, when some poor unsuspecting person tries to make sense of things like this, it doesn’t go well.

When you spend all your days thinking about one particular subject, it’s not surprising it becomes second-nature to you – think of the bore at a dinner party who can only discuss their incredibly complex, and incomprehensible, job. I imagine few people want to be that person at dinner – so why be that person when you write?

So, the real first step is this: step outside yourself. Make a conscious effort to put yourself in the mind of another person – someone who has no idea about the complex topic you are about to explain, but must try to understand it anyway.

This is hard. Really, really hard. Human beings have enormous difficulty understanding the “other” – someone from a different background, with different beliefs, and different knowledge. It takes a powerful act of will, and some imagination, to do this successfully.

The first step is to go back to basics: think about what you’re working on, and reduce it to the very simplest principles. For example, pensions, as above. What’s going on?

“New rules from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister mean the LGPS regulations introduced in 2004 have been cancelled, so they will never come into force.”

Ok… try again:

“Some rules which were introduced in 2004 have been cancelled – so it’s as if the rules were never introduced at all.”

Better. But do people know about these regulations? And what will it mean to them? Once more:

“The government has recently made some changes to your pension scheme, which reverse changes that were expected to happen. This is how these latest changes will affect you…”

In the third version, we’re trying to break this down as simply as possible, instead of assuming the reader will be able to interpret the impact by themselves. This is likely to result in longer copy, as the changes and their impact are spelled out, instead of forcing the reader to look at a separate document.

Of course, there’s a danger that such simplified writing may seem patronising, or is inefficient and long-winded. To avoid this, the next step is to think about who your readers actually are – and I’ll talk about this in the next article: Who, Why, What: define your audience.

One Comment:

  1. Ah, the curse of knowledge. Please everyone in the world read this.

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