Writing from the reader’s point of view

As a former editor, I often find myself wondering why so many writers don’t seem to consider the reader’s point of view. It’s the editor’s job to advocate for the reader. Part of that is to make sure that the writing is as clear and to-the-point as possible. But it also requires an understanding of who the reader is and how they’re going to use the document. That determines what information you include, how you organize it, how much explanation you provide, and the vocabulary you use. Similarly, in a technical presentation, you need to consider your audience and why they’re attending.

I always appreciate it when professionals in other disciplines consider what I do for a living when they explain something to me. That way they can tailor it to what I already know and how I think. An attorney I worked for in a construction lawsuit was kind enough to draw sketches for me. That is, he chose to “speak my language” by depicting things visually. A surgeon showed me a drawing of the body part he was going to operate on, knowing I could visualize it in three dimensions. That way he could concentrate on explaining the things I didn’t understand.

Boilerplate text

Drink me illustration of Alice in Wonderland
It was all very well to say “Drink me,” but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry. “No, I’ll look first,” she said, “and see whether it’s marked ‘poison‘ or not”…she had never forgotten that if you drink much from a bottle marked “poison,” it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll. Shutterstock image.

On the other hand, it’s frustrating when information is missing or contradictory. The latter happens frequently when people use boilerplate without reviewing the whole document. It’s ok to use boilerplate. Once you’ve written instructions for a procedure or a description of your facilities, why not reuse them? That saves time and keeps you from leaving out important details. But make sure the whole document works together from the reader’s point of view. For example, information about a meeting should include the topic, date, time, and location all on the same page.

If things have changed since the boilerplate was written, you need to update it. A colleague once asked me about a Michigan DOT test for a job he was bidding. He’d looked up MDOT’s specification on their website but couldn’t find the test. I called an acquaintance at MDOT, who found the relevant pages in an old file. The test determined whether fresh concrete contained corrosion inhibitor. It involved weighing a sample of fresh concrete, mixing it with water, letting it settle, and collecting a sample of the supernatant liquid for laboratory analysis. Naturally we’d have to do all this on a jobsite, and the analysis would take several days. MDOT no longer used that test because a simple test strip could give the result in seconds—right there on the jobsite. Yet the old test lived on in specifications.

Emotions and objectivity

One aspect of the reader’s point of view that we rarely discuss in technical communication is the emotional component. Technical communication is supposed to be objective; indeed, the engineers’ code of ethics specifically requires objectivity in communication. But the reader may well have an emotional response to it. If you fail to take that into account, you won’t communicate effectively.

For example, the authors of one manuscript had developed a simple analytical method for use by structural engineers. Practitioners might prefer it to the more elaborate version to save time or easily compare alternate designs. But the wording implied that the authors had explained it in simple terms so that even the reader could understand. Anticipating that readers might take offense at the patronizing tone, I reworded it.

Medical professionals often deal with patients and family members who are anxious or fearful when getting news from them. Those who understand that don’t wait until the end to come to the conclusion. Instead, they start with, “The scan looks good,” or “He’s resting comfortably,” and then home in on the details. That’s much kinder than keeping everyone in suspense until the end. And people are better able to absorb technical information once their biggest concerns are put to rest.


Your reader or hearer may not have a neutral position on your topic. Maybe they’re on record taking an opposing opinion. Some of the people I most admire in my own field are those who change their minds when they get new information. That is, their professional opinion is not their identity. It’s just their judgment based on the information they have at the time. They can let it go if the facts on the ground change. But some people identify with the theories they promote. If they’re influential enough, they’ll limit progress on that front until they retire or die.

Similarly, some people don’t want to rethink their opinions. No matter how much time has passed or what may have changed since then, they know what they know and they won’t revisit it. Whether from laziness or stubbornness, they’ve made up their minds and they aren’t going consider a different viewpoint.

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength which it gave to my jaw
Has lasted the rest of my life.”—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Aside from ego, people may have other interests at stake. We’ve discussed some of those at length with regard to distinguishing lies from statistics. Usually those interests are financial—they could lose or gain depending on the outcome. Or they may represent a certain industry’s interests.

If any of these is the case, you need to tread carefully. Sometimes an indirect approach is best—that is, you start with an analogy or a story rather than a direct confrontation. Also, it’s important to provide people a face-saving way to back down.