Read This—Before You Start Writing

Jan 24, 2019

By Kevin Wilson and Jennifer Wauson

Define Your AudienceWhen planning to write a business document, the most important consideration is to understand your audience. You must adapt your writing to the needs and interests of the audience.

For most business documents, the audience falls into one of the following categories:

  • Subject matter experts—individuals who know the content completely and who focus on the details
  • Technologists—people who manufacture, operate, and maintain products and services and who have a firm practical knowledge
  • Management—people who make decisions about whether to produce and market products and services but who have little technical knowledge about the details
  • General audience—people who may know about a product or service but who have little technical knowledge about the details

Another way to analyze your audience is to consider its characteristics:

  • What is its background, education, and experience?
  • Does your writing have to start with the basics, or can you work at a more advanced level?
    Example: If you are writing about a Windows-based software product, can you assume the audience already has a basic understanding of Windows, how to use a mouse, and so forth?
  • What will the audience expect and need from your document?
  • How will your document be used?
  • Will users read it cover to cover or just skim the high points?
  • Will they use your document as a reference to look up information when it is needed?
  • What are the demographics of your audience?
  • Consider the age, sex, location, and other characteristics of your audience.

Your writing may have more than one audience or an audience with a wide variety of backgrounds. With an audience of both experts and laypeople, it is best to organize your document into sections with easy-to-understand headings so that the individual users can find the areas that interest them. You may need to off-load the more technical information to an appendix.

Once you have analyzed your audience, you must adapt your document to conform to its interests and needs. You may need to:

  • Add information.
  • Omit information.
  • Add examples to help readers understand.
  • Write to a lower or higher level.
  • Include background information.
  • Strengthen transitions between sentences, paragraphs, and sections.
  • Write longer introductions and clearer topic sentences.
  • Change your sentence style.
  • Change the type of graphics used.
  • Add cross-references.
  • Organize your content into headings with lists.
  • Use special fonts, font sizes, font styles, and line spacing for emphasis.

Special Considerations for Global Communications
When writing for an international audience, you can easily create problems if you are unclear or use miscommunication. To overcome this problem, avoid using slang or words with double meanings that can be misunderstood by non-native English speakers.

To adjust your writing for an international audience:

  • Use both the active and passive voice. In an active sentence, the subject is doing something (The boy bounced the ball). In a passive sentence, the subject does nothing; it is acted upon (The ball was bounced by the boy). However, some cultures—for example, in Japan and China—consider the active voice to be condescending and prefer the passive voice.
  • Use a direct rather than indirect style; the indirect style can be confusing.
  • Avoid using abbreviations (e.g., “to be done asap”) and brand names (e.g., “Xerox two copies”), unless you are writing about a specific brand (e.g., “Xerox’s Color CubeTM 9200 Series”).
  • Use short sentences and simple sentence constructions.
  • Avoid phrasal verbs like call up, put up, drop down, and the like; such phrases can easily be used as a single word (call, put, drop) and mean the same thing.
  • Make antecedents extremely clear when using pronouns.
  • Avoid clichés and slang.
  • Be careful with humor; a non-English-speaking person may not understand.
  • Don’t use contractions; they make translation more difficult.
  • Avoid cultural metaphors that are recognized in the United States but are meaningless to an international audience, for example, Big Apple, pigskin, brown-bagging
  • When using graphics in your document, avoid using human hands, animals, or religious symbols.
  • Use androgynous figures for humans.
  • Make sure you use which and that correctly.
  • Write out dates by spelling the month (September 23, 2012, not 09/23/2012).
  • If you must refer to gender, use the terms man and woman rather than male and female.
  • Do not use the word domestic to refer to the United States.
  • Avoid using symbols and special characters.
    Examples: Use pound, not #; write dollars, not $; avoid the ditto mark ("); spell out the words inches and feet; ask for help, don’t type the question mark "?"
  • If your document will be translated, keep in mind that the same content may expand by 15% or more in the new language.

© 2010 Kevin Wilson and Jennifer Wauson. Excerpted by permission of the publisher from The AMA Handbook of Business Writing: the Ultimate Guide to Style, Grammar, Punctuation, Usage, Construction, and Formatting, by Kevin Wilson and Jennifer Wauson. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

About the Author(s)

Kevin Wilson and Jennifer Wauson are the authors of The AMA Handbook of Business Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Style, Grammar, Punctuation, Usage, Construction, and Formatting, published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.