Getting to know your audience

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Over the next three blogs, we’ll be looking at three great questions to ask about your audience. They’re questions that can help you work out what you want to say. After that, the rest is easy.

Let’s get started with the first (and most obvious) question:

‘Who are your audience?’

When you meet someone in person, the way you speak will depend on who they are and what kind of relationship you have with them.

For example, you might talk in quite a formal way in a meeting with a solicitor, but it would be weird to talk like that with your brother or sister.

It’s the same with writing. Identifying your audience (the people you’re writing for) is a really important step. The better you understand them, the more effective your writing will be.

To get to know your audience, spend some time thinking about

  • who exactly you’re writing for

Your audience might be a very specific group of people.

If you’re a school receptionist writing a termly newsletter, your audience is parents of children who attend that school.

With this audience in mind, you will probably want to write in a polite and friendly tone. You know that parents are usually busy so it will be best to keep the newsletter short and sweet.

Your audience might be a much broader group.

If you’re a pilates instructor and you’re writing an advert about a new Wednesday morning beginners’ class, your audience is anyone who’s free at that time in the local area. They’re likely to be new to pilates and might be looking for a way to do more exercise.

For this audience, you want to be enthusiastic and encouraging in the way you write. You want your readers to know they’re welcome to come along, whatever their previous experience.

  • what their wants and needs are

If you can provide your audience with what they might want or need, make that really clear.

School parents need to know about school events, like non-uniform days. There’s a lot to remember as a parent, so they’ll want a school newsletter that makes key dates easy to read.

The key dates for your diary this term are Thursday 17th June (sports day) and Tuesday 2nd July (parents’ evening).

Potential pilates class members might want to get fit and meet new people, so an advert that mentions this is going to get them interested straight away.

  • their relationship with you

Even if you don’t know your audience in person, they may already have assumptions or opinions about the company you work for or the kind of people you represent.

For example, some people might be a bit intimidated by the idea of doing pilates and assume that you’ll be just like their scary sports teacher from school. By writing in a friendly, approachable tone of voice, you can show them there’s nothing to worry about.

This gentle class for complete beginners will take you through the basics of pilates step by step. It’s a fun, relaxed environment and you don’t need any previous experience.

 

So, how well do you know your audience? A bit of empathy and imagination is all it takes to tailor your writing to your readers and get your message across effectively.

Next time we’ll be looking at another important question to help you write well for your audience.

 

Workshop: Cut it short

 

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It’s time to try out some short sentences.

Here’s what we’re working with:

Cut it short

The writer has used some quite wordy sentences here. It’s a dense block of text, made up of three long sentences without much light and shade.

By breaking up some of those long sentences, we can bring a bit more rhythm to this piece of writing. We’re aiming for a mixture of short and long sentences.

We could also try rewriting some of the wordier parts altogether. Obviously, we don’t want to lose any of the information the writer has included. This is just about finding shorter ways to say the same things.

Let’s see what difference those tactics make:

Cut it short 2

With a few subtle changes, we’ve brought a sense of rhythm and pace back to the text. It’s easier and more interesting to read, and it no longer looks like a big clump of words on the page.

Short sentences for the win!

 

Cut it short

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Short sentences are great.

They’re quick. They’re punchy. They catch your reader’s eye.

Here are three top tips for using them in your writing:

Mix it up

Whatever you’re writing, short sentences can help to break up the text.

Great writers use a mixture of sentence lengths. Next time you’re reading a good article online or in the newspaper, look at the sentences. You’ll usually find a mixture of long, medium and short sentences.

You can use a short sentence after a longer one to underline your point or simply to add rhythm:

We believe that some students have been taking books out of the university library, removing the covers and placing them on a different book to return to the library. This is theft.

After your visit to Wafflington Cathedral we recommend that you cross the Southgate Bridge to Drawnbeck Hill. The view is spectacular.

 

Watch out for the runaway sentence

A ‘run on’ sentence is a sentence that runs on and on and on:

On Saturdays we come in at 8am so that the trampolines are set up in time for the Kids’ Club but on the first Friday of every month we have an evening session for primary school children so on those weeks we can leave the trampolines out overnight so we don’t need to come in until 8.30am.

Wow.

That is a monster sentence. Let’s try and break it up into more manageable chunks:

On most Saturdays we come in at 8am to set up the trampolines in time for the Kids’ Club.

However, on the first Friday of every month we have an evening session for primary school children. On those weeks we can leave the trampolines out overnight so we don’t need to come in until 8.30am.

Much better.

 

Divide and conquer

As a writer, it’s easy to get carried away. You might not be in the habit of writing ‘run on’ sentences, but perhaps you are rather partial to a sentence that (like this one) is somewhat longer than it really needs to be.

Here’s another example of a long sentence:

Although the first set of results might lead us to assume that Agro Fertiliser was the most effective product, the subsequent tests show that the RadiGrow Formula was in fact the standout product overall.

This is a perfectly fine sentence, but we can make it better. Let’s see if we can divide it up a bit.

The first set of results might lead us to assume that Agro Fertiliser was the most effective product.

However, the subsequent tests show that the RadiGrow Formula was in fact the standout product overall.

A very simple tweak gives us two shorter sentences. It’s quicker to read and easier to follow, but still quite formal. If you were writing a report, for example, this would work well.

But what if we wanted the sentences to be even shorter?

Look at the first set of results. Agro Fertiliser seems to be the most effective product.

However, the rest of the tests tell a different story.  It turns out that the RadiGrow Formula was the standout product overall.

With a little more work, we’ve ended up with four even shorter sentences. Very short sentences aren’t going to be appropriate in every context but they’re a great way to catch your reader’s attention and keep them reading.

 

Ready to start cutting down those sentences? Come back on Thursday for sentence trimming practice in the Write for Real People Workshop.

Workshop: Using the passive voice

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The passive voice is finally having its moment. It may not be as dynamic or direct as the active voice, but as we’re about to find out, it does have its special uses.

Let’s take a look at this letter:

Using the passive 1It’s clear, concise and to the point, but perhaps it’s a little on the harsh side. It sounds almost as though poor Mrs Witherby has done something wrong.

The writer has used the active voice throughout the letter. In most scenarios, the active would be the best choice, but there’s a rather accusing tone to it here.

Using the passive 2

This is one of those rare occasions when it’s better to be indirect. The passive voice is great for taking the edge off an accusation and that’s exactly what we need here.

Using the passive 3

By using the passive voice, we’ve softened the tone and let Mrs Witherby off the hook. It’s a much less confrontational letter as a result.

 

The active voice or the passive voice. Which one do you naturally gravitate towards? Let us know in the comments below:

Using the passive voice

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In the last couple of blogs, we’ve been singing the praises of the active voice. So clear. So direct. So full of energy.

But this week, it’s the passive voice’s time to shine.

As much as we’ve been slating the passive voice for its ambiguity, sometimes that’s exactly what you need. Here are three situations when the passive voice can save the day:

 

  1. The Whodunnit

Sometimes, you just don’t know who did it. The passive voice is the ideal option when there’s no clear ‘doing’ person.

For example:

My car was stolen on Wednesday.

The house was built in 1876.

 

  1. The Sensitive Subject

If you’re writing about a difficult topic, the passive voice can be a gentle way to avoid awkwardness. Perhaps it’s an uncomfortable topic for the reader. Maybe you are reprimanding the reader but don’t want to sound confrontational.

In these situations, the active voice can sound a little harsh:

The dentist will make an incision in your gum and pull the tooth out using plyers.

You have not paid your electric bill, so we will be cutting off your electricity.

The passive voice softens the tone:

An incision will be made in the gum and the tooth will be removed using plyers.

As the electricity bill has not been paid, the electricity supply will be cut off.

Beware of using the passive too much when you’re cautioning or criticising the reader. It can all too easily sound passive aggressive.

 

  1. The Dodge

When you or your organisation have messed up, the passive voice is one way of dodging the full force of the blame.

The active voice forces you to identify the culprit, even if it’s you:

We have lost your application and did not keep a copy on file.

The passive voice allows you to skulk in the shadows a bit:

Unfortunately, your application has been lost and a copy was not kept on file.

It’s a good trick to know for emergencies, but use with caution. As tempting as it may be to keep pulling the passive out, it’s often overused. Readers tend to appreciate a direct confession rather than a vague dodge.

 

So, there you have it. The active voice is usually the way to go, but the passive voice does have its uses.

Come back on Thursday to see the passive voice taking centre stage in our Write for Real People Workshop.

Workshop: Using the active voice

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On Monday we put on our grammar hats and looked at the difference between the active and passive voices. We also discovered that the active voice is usually the best way to go.

With all this new knowledge, we’re ready to start putting the active voice into action.

Here’s a letter that could do with our attention:

Using the active voice

The writer has used the passive voice throughout this letter. Once you start using the passive, it’s hard to get out of the habit…

Using the active voice 2The result is a rather impersonal tone and a few key gaps in the information for the reader. It’s not clear who will be looking after the reader’s child. It all sounds a bit vague and uncaring, which is not exactly what you’d want for your child’s school.

Let’s see if we can help this writer bring some warmth and clarity back with the active voice:

Using the active voice 3By introducing the active voice, we’ve also introduced Mrs Gill, the teacher. Now we know who is going to be registering the children and taking them to their classroom.

We’ve also addressed the parents directly by asking them to bring and collect their children, rather than simply implying this via the passive voice. It’s all sounding much friendlier.

Using the active voice can transform your writing. Most of the time…

Come back on Monday for three dilemmas that only the passive voice can resolve…

Using the active voice

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This week we’re comparing the active voice and the passive voice.

It sounds scarily grammatical, but stay with me. Once you know how to use them, the active and passive voices are powerful writing tools.

What is the active voice?

The active voice is all about energy, direction and, yes, action.

We usually write simple sentences in the active voice. Here’s an example:

Rosie built the shed.

The person who is acting (Rosie) is at the beginning of the sentence. She comes before the verb (built). She kicks off the action and the sentence continues from there.

What is the passive voice?

You could also write this sentence in the passive voice.

The shed was built by Rosie.

This time Rosie, the ‘doing’ person, comes after the verb. The shed is now at the beginning.

We can even use the passive voice to take Rosie out of the sentence altogether:

The shed was built on Monday.

In this version we don’t know who built the shed. We can use the passive to hide the identity of the ‘doing’ person. They become a grammatical secret agent.

Three reasons to use the active voice

People tend to use the passive voice far more than they need to. Most of the time, the active voice is the best option:

  • It’s clear

It’s amazing how confusing the passive voice can be. Here’s an example:

The medication should be given on Wednesday and taken on the same day.

This rather odd sentence makes much more sense when we put it in the active voice:

The pharmacist should be given to the patient on Wednesday. The patient should take it on the same day.

Avoid the passive voice and you avoid confusion.

  • It’s dynamic

You can tell that the ‘passive voice’ isn’t a party animal just from its name. It’s clunky and lifeless, and it sucks the excitement out of any sentence it meets.

Holly was proposed to. (Sorry? Did you say something?)

Holly was proposed to by David. (What was that about Holly and David?)

Let’s try the active voice:

David proposed to Holly! (Woohoo! Crack open the champagne!)

  • There are no secret agents

One of the most unhelpful things about the passive voice is the way it can hide the ‘doing’ person.

When you arrive at the hospital, you will be taken to the ward.

Did you spot the ‘secret agent’? The writer has left out the person who will take the patient to the ward. This makes it harder for the reader to imagine what will happen when they arrive at hospital.

It even sounds a bit threatening, as though some faceless individual will grab them from behind and march them off under protest.

We can remove this unnecessary mystery by using the active voice:

When you arrive at the hospital, one of our nurses will take you to the ward.

By identifying the ‘doing’ person, we’ve made this sentence much clearer and friendlier. It may seem like a little thing, but it makes a big difference.

 

Let’s put the active voice into action! Come back on Thursday for grammatical fun in the Write for Real People Workshop.

Of course, there are times when the passive really is necessary, but we’ll save those for next week…

Workshop: Cut the waffle

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Welcome back to the Write for Real People Workshop. Today we’re cutting the waffle and making our writing clearer and more powerful.

Here’s an example of a rather waffly letter:

Cut the waffle 3.JPG

This language in this letter sounds official and authoritative, but on closer inspection a lot of it is unnecessary.

We can cut about half of the words in the letter:

Cut the waffle 2

Let’s see what that looks like…

Cut the waffle

Excellent! By cutting the waffle, we’ve made this letter shorter and easier to read. As a result, the writer can get their message across much more effectively.

How can you start cutting the waffle in your writing? Let us know in the comments below.

Cut the waffle

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One of the greatest threats to good writing is ‘waffle’.

The word ‘waffle’ may conjure up cosy images of hot waffles for breakfast with whipped cream and maple syrup, but in the writing world, waffle is much more dangerous.

Waffle is unnecessary text that suffocates your message.

Here’s an example:

While we recognise that all children develop at their own pace, it is generally recommended that babies, toddlers and small children are not left unsupervised with items that contain small parts, as this may cause choking. With this in mind, we advise that you avoid giving this product to any children under the age of three, to prevent this unlikely but serious outcome.

The writer has a very serious message to give, but he has cloaked it in so much unnecessary padding that it has completely lost its impact.

Let’s strip all that waffle away:

Do not give this product to children under the age of three. It contains small parts that may cause choking.

The result is a direct instruction that’s easy to follow and a clear concise explanation for it.

Diagnosing waffle

If you’re a serial waffler, don’t despair. It’s a common problem and it’s easily fixed. When you’ve identified the reason for the waffle, you can start cutting it out of your writing.

Here are three reasons for waffling and how to tackle them:

  1. You’re not exactly sure what you’re trying to say

If you’re not sure what you’re trying to say, take some time to work out what the key points of your message are. That’s the hard part. Once you know what you’re trying to say, you can just go ahead and say it.

  1. You’re worried about making your point directly

If you’re worried about making your point directly, ask yourself why that is. Perhaps you don’t want to sound ‘bossy’. Remember that your reader will expect you to give them instructions (take a look at our previous post on this topic: Like a boss).

Perhaps you will need to draw attention to something that’s awkward or unpleasant. It can be difficult to find the right words for a sensitive topic, but try to avoid lots of unnecessary skirting around the issue. Choose your words carefully, by all means, but make sure the essential information is easy to find and understand.

  1. You’re trying to make your writing sound impressive

If you’re trying to make your writing sound more impressive, you might need to consider whether this is a good strategy. Text that’s full of waffle just isn’t effective. Readers will give up on it, no matter how impressed they may be by the writer’s vocabulary.

This is a particularly bad tactic if you’re writing public information. Long, wordy paragraphs can intimidate the very people you’re trying to engage and educate. Shorter sentences and simpler words are usually the way to go.

 

Ready to start tackling the waffle? We’ll be back on Thursday for some waffle-busting fun in the Write for Real People Workshop.