Writing for Readers

What do people want when they’re reading nonfiction?

  • Clarity
  • To become more informed
  • To enjoy themselves if the text is in a less formal style
  • To feel respected

How is clarity achieved?

  • By presenting information in the way that readers expect it to be presented
  • By explaining notions, concepts or ideas that will be new to the reader
  • By using vocabulary that the reader mostly knows

How do readers expect information to be presented?

  • They expect to learn about only one topic. It can be general or very specific.
  • They expect all the sentences in the text to develop only that topic.

Example 1
The Nintendo Switch and Switch Lite are a durable pair of consoles designed to endure the rigours of home and portable gaming. For the most part, we’ve been very happy with reliability of our Switch hardware — our launch systems are still going strong after being slung in backpacks, dropped into docks, and dropped on the floor too many times than we’d care to mention.

That’s not to say the Switch hardware is perfect, though. Several issues have come to light since launch — some rather significant — which you may encounter after prolonged use of the console.
In this guide we will address the most common Switch hardware problems and offer potential solutions and guidance if you find yourself up Switch creek without a paddle.

Source: G. Lane. (2020, May 18). Guide: Nintendo Switch Issues And Hardware Faults – How To Fix Common Switch Problems. Nintendo Life.

Example 2
A woman walking down the street hears a bang. Several moments later she discovers her boyfriend, who had been walking ahead of her, has been shot. A month later, the woman checks into the emergency room. The noises made by garbage trucks, she says, are causing panic attacks. Her brain had formed a deep, lasting connection between loud sounds and the devastating sight she witnessed.

This story, relayed by clinical psychiatrist and co-author of a new study Mohsin Ahmed, MD, PhD, is a powerful example of the brain’s powerful ability to remember and connect events separated in time. And now, in that new study in mice published today in Neuron, scientists at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute have shed light on how the brain can form such enduring links.

Source: The Zuckerman Institute at Columbia University. (2020, May 8). How does the brain link events to form a memory? Study reveals unexpected mental processes. ScienceDaily.

  • They expect sentences that name different aspects of the topic.
  • These sentences can be statements or questions.
  • They expect these aspects to be developed one at a time. Otherwise things can get confusing.
  • They expect only one aspect in each paragraph.

Example 1
Valves are usually made of metal or plastic and they have several different parts. The outer part is called the seat and it often has a solid metal outer casing and a soft inner rubber or plastic seal so the valve makes a closure that’s absolutely tight. The inner part of the valve, which opens and closes, is called the body and fits into the seat when the valve is closed. There’s also some form of mechanism for opening and closing the valve—either a manual lever or wheel (as in a faucet or a stop cock) or an automated mechanism (as in a car engine or steam engine).

Source: C. Woodward. Valves. (2019, March 7).

Example 2
Valves are pretty much guaranteed to be in any machine that uses liquids or gases. There’s a valve in your clothes washer that turns the water supply on or off each time the drum rinses out. There are also valves in the cylinders of your car engine, opening and closing several times a second to admit air and fuel and to allow burned exhaust gases to escape.

Source: C. Woodward. Valves. (2019, March 7).

Example 3
The dashboard is really popular, with about 30 million visitors a day, and 700 million total so far, so it’s unsurprising that Schiffmann has gotten offers to put ads on the website. One offer in particular would have contracted Schiffmann to keep up the site for $US8 million, which he turned down, and he says he likely could have made over $US30 million if he’d put up his own ads, but he says that’s not the goal of the site.

“I’m only 17, I don’t need $US8 million… I don’t want to be a profiteer,” he said. At first, he was almost reluctant to talk about ads, which he says everyone asks about. Then, he explained his reasoning. Schiffmann said that he didn’t want popups ruining the user interface, which would be something out of his control if he sold the site.

Source: M. Meisenzahl. (2020, May 16). 17-Year-Old Turned Down $8 Million to Keep His Viral Coronavirus Tracker Ad-Free. Business Insider.

  • They expect sentences that say more about each aspect.
  • They expect one or more paragraphs for the sentences that say more about each aspect.
  • How many depends on how many sentences there are and what type of text it is.

Example 1
Valves are usually made of metal or plastic and they have several different parts. The outer part is called the seat and it often has a solid metal outer casing and a soft inner rubber or plastic seal so the valve makes a closure that’s absolutely tight. The inner part of the valve, which opens and closes, is called the body and fits into the seat when the valve is closed. There’s also some form of mechanism for opening and closing the valve—either a manual lever or wheel (as in a faucet or a stop cock) or an automated mechanism (as in a car engine or steam engine).

Source: C. Woodward. Valves. (2019, March 7).

Example 2
Valves are pretty much guaranteed to be in any machine that uses liquids or gases. There’s a valve in your clothes washer that turns the water supply on or off each time the drum rinses out. There are also valves in the cylinders of your car engine, opening and closing several times a second to admit air and fuel and to allow burned exhaust gases to escape.

Source: C. Woodward. Valves. (2019, March 7).

Example 3
The dashboard is really popular, with about 30 million visitors a day, and 700 million total so far, so it’s unsurprising that Schiffmann has gotten offers to put ads on the website. One offer in particular would have contracted Schiffmann to keep up the site for $US8 million, which he turned down, and he says he likely could have made over $US30 million if he’d put up his own ads, but he says that’s not the goal of the site.

“I’m only 17, I don’t need $US8 million… I don’t want to be a profiteer,” he said. At first, he was almost reluctant to talk about ads, which he says everyone asks about. Then, he explained his reasoning. Schiffmann said that he didn’t want popups ruining the user interface, which would be something out of his control if he sold the site.

Source: M. Meisenzahl. (2020, May 16). 17-Year-Old Turned Down $8 Million to Keep His Viral Coronavirus Tracker Ad-Free. Business Insider.

  • They expect a certain kind of introduction and a certain kind of conclusion. It depends on what type of text it is.
  • They expect words, phrases and sentences that help guide the reader through the text.
  • These phrases and sentences can say what to expect next.
  • They can remind the reader of what has already been said.
  • They can say how the details relate to each other.

Example 1
In addition to helping to map the circuitry involved in associative learning, these findings also provide a starting point to more deeply explore disorders involving dysfunctions in associative memory, such as panic and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Source: The Zuckerman Institute at Columbia University. (2020, May 8). How does the brain link events to form a memory? Study reveals unexpected mental processes. ScienceDaily.

Example 2
Güler’s team found that mice fed a diet comparable to a wild diet in calories and fats maintained normal eating and exercise schedules and proper weight. But mice fed high-calorie diets laden with fats and sugars began “snacking” at all hours and became obese.

Additionally, so-called “knockout” mice that had their dopamine signaling disrupted — meaning they didn’t seek the rewarding pleasure of the high-fat diet — maintained a normal eating schedule and did not become obese, even when presented with the 24/7 availability of high-calorie feeds.

Source: University of Virginia. (2020, January 3). Study finds dopamine, biological clock link to snacking, overeating and obesity. ScienceDaily.

How can I help my reader with a tricky word or idea, but in a quiet sort of way?

  • By putting an explanation in between dashes in a sentence

Example 1
The hippocampus — a small, seahorse-shaped region buried deep in the brain — is an important headquarters for learning and memory. Previous experiments in mice showed that disruption to the hippocampus leaves the animals with trouble learning to associate two events separated by tens of seconds.

Source: The Zuckerman Institute at Columbia University. (2020, May 8). How does the brain link events to form a memory? Study reveals unexpected mental processes. ScienceDaily.

Example 2
Güler’s team found that mice fed a diet comparable to a wild diet in calories and fats maintained normal eating and exercise schedules and proper weight. But mice fed high-calorie diets laden with fats and sugars began “snacking” at all hours and became obese.

Additionally, so-called “knockout” mice that had their dopamine signaling disrupted — meaning they didn’t seek the rewarding pleasure of the high-fat diet — maintained a normal eating schedule and did not become obese, even when presented with the 24/7 availability of high-calorie feeds.

Source: The Zuckerman Institute at Columbia University. (2020, May 8). How does the brain link events to form a memory? Study reveals unexpected mental processes. ScienceDaily.

How do I make sure my reader will become more informed?

  • Know what they already know. Tell them something new.

If my text is less formal, how do I make my readers enjoy themselves?

  • Get them to want to spend time with you. Use one or more of these strategies:
    • Share about yourself. We’re more likely to connect to people who open up to us. Especially when they show they’re not perfect.
    • Be likeable. Show respect for others.
    • Be entertaining. Be thought-provoking. Be funny. Be unexpected.

How do I make sure my reader feels respected?