Using Our Readerly Impatience to Become Better Writers

A strange disconnect seems to exist between how we see email when we’re the writer and how we see it when we’re the reader.

As readers, most of us are impatient. We’ve got a hundred other things to do with any moment of our time so we want things to be, as a professor friend likes to say, concise and precise. Opening an email, we are unconsciously thinking: Give me the relevant–and only the relevant–information, get to the point, tell me if something’s expected of me, and stop.

But most of us, and I certainly include myself in this, seem to forget our experiences as readers as soon as we step into the writing role. When it’s our information about our project, we want to make sure we include all the details to make as strong a case as possible for whatever we’re sharing and whatever we need.

The trouble is, our main point can get lost in all those details. Our readers find themselves needing to invest extra effort in finding the heart of the matter because we didn’t clearly highlight it for them with the written equivalent of a flashing neon sign. They may or may not make the investment.

And because it’s so clear to us what we’re asking for from people, we may not notice when we leave out a clear statement of expectations, request, or assignment complete with specific requirements and due date.

It’s a similar experience to what we may have experienced after asking our spouse to put dinner in the oven. It’s so obvious to us that this dish should be covered that we may not think to say so–only to arrive home to a dryer-than-intended meal and a spouse who assumed that if it needed to be covered we would have said so.

Before getting frustrated with others for not doing what we believe we asked them to, it’s probably worth taking a look at our written request to assess whether the information about the request and the deadline was clearly outlined. Sometimes it will have been. But other times not.

It might become easier to leave out some of the details we see as so important when we remember that leaving them out may mean that the recipient will actually read our message, while including the details may mean that the wordy email doesn’t get read at all.

What habits have you developed to make sure that the necessary information is included and the unnecessary details are not? Share your tricks in the comments below!

4 thoughts on “Using Our Readerly Impatience to Become Better Writers”

  1. AaronB

    I’ve found that just asking myself if the wording or the whole sentence is necessary, has helped me out. I also sometimes type an email, but do not send it right away, then return and rereading it before sending.

  2. jbarton2008

    I read everything I write out loud to myself. When I physically hear what I write, I often discover I haven’t conveyed exactly the message I want the reader to know. It is also a great way to catch typos, grammar errors, and spelling mistakes.

    I sometimes forget to do this with mundane emails, but I always read grants, papers, and reports out loud before hitting submit.

  3. Tim Urban

    I think one of the simplest and best ways to become a better writer is to reread what you have typed. It is easy to lose your train of thought when in the middle of an email message. Answering a phone call or someone walking into your office are two examples. Before you know it you are focusing on something else, and errors happen.

  4. Noel Rasor

    Such great points you all make here. When I worked at the KU Writing Center, we nearly always asked students to read a few paragraphs of their papers out loud to get things started because they immediately started noticing things that weren’t quite right–and it’s infinitely more useful when people see the issues themselves.

    And seriously, just the straightforward “reread before sending” and “wait before sending” are such important reminders.

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