In any piece of writing you must always know who you are writing for. This knowledge of the audience is what differentiates good writing from bad writing in many circumstances. Once you define your audience you can then form the basis of how you structure your thoughts and your arguments, it will enable you to make assumptions about the reader and their competence, to put yourself in their shoes and have empathy for them. It forces you to clarify your assumptions about them. The reason why a lot of writing is bad, and when I say bad here I am largely meaning frustrating for the reader, is that it is confused about who the intended audience is, this confusion makes the writing a stylistic and conceptual mess, it is either too complex or not complex enough. The reader comes away from it confused about what you are trying to say.
Once you understand what you’re trying to say and who you’re writing for then the rest of the process of writing will come more naturally. You can simply ask yourself the question, “have I written something that my audience will understand and appreciate”. If the answer is no, if your writing is still a crawling mess of brain dumps, notes and journal musings then you likely need to clarify your thinking on the subject before publishing it out into the world.
I think about the following general forms of writing. No one form is better or worse than the others, don’t be elitist. This is not exhaustive and there is overlap here, more interestingly many authors are always developing new styles, new voices here that both inform and delight us.
- Journaling -> Writing for yourself about topics involving your emotional state or as a stream of consciousness. Often little to no editing here, the objective is to capture your own emotional state and provide a record of what occurred. There is often no reader, you’re largely writing this to get it out of your own head.
- Note Taking -> Writing for yourself about a reference topic that you are trying to understand and learn more about later in order to improve your knowledge. You intend to come back to these notes and read them again. These are largely written for yourself and will always be a function of knowledge that you’ve internalised here. The reader is yourself.
- Blog -> This can often be seen as a thought of external journaling. You’re writing down your thoughts and your stream of consciousness but you are not seeking to convey information or convince someone else of something. As such, much less rigour applies here, you are often writing for long term readers and may build some rapport with them over time. Different from a General Article or Essay in that you are deliberately introducing your personality into the piece, you may still seek to convey some information/opinion to the reader. The reader should come away with a deeper understanding of both the author and the topic.
- General Article -> Writing a topic that is intended to be read by someone with little to no understanding about the topic in question. You are seeking to convey information here, you are not seeking to teach them how to do something specific. You are also not seeking to introduce your own “voice” too much into the article (a small amount is unavoidable), the work should stand alone independent of the author and still be useful. The reader should come away with an understanding of the subject matter.
- Technical Article -> Writing about a topic that is intended to be read by someone with some degree of knowledge and understanding of the subject. You are seeking to convey precise technical information about a general topic in order to improve the understanding of the reader. You are not seeking to teach them how to do something specific. The reader should come away with an in depth understanding of the topic.
- Tutorial -> Seeking to teach someone how to accomplish something as a general introduction to a particular topic. This is usually at a very basis level and targeted at someone who knows little about the topic. The reader should come away with a basic understanding of the concepts of the field and be able to move to more advanced material in the domain.
- How To Guide -> Seeking to teach someone how to accomplish something specific. Is more technical and specific than a Tutorial but is not a Technical Article. The reader should be able to follow the step by step instructions in order to accomplish a task. Another name for a how to guide is a Recipe.
- Reference Material -> Writing about the internal nuts and bolts of a topic in extensive depth. The idea with reference material is to be exhaustive about the topic in question and to explain all of the ins and outs here. This can come in a number of different forms, a memo for example is a form of reference material, as is a technical glossary. The reader should be able to return to this material over and over.
- Essay/Opinion Piece -> Writing about a topic and trying to influence someone else’s point of view, often inherently political in nature as you’re seeking to provide a basis for someone to do something else. This is different from technical knowledge sharing which are more rooted in fact. Often uses emotional appeals here. The reader should come away with an appreciation for a different point of view. A less flattering name for an opinion piece is Propaganda.
- General Non Fiction Book -> A combination of General Article and Essay typically. Often general non fiction books provide a surface level explanation for the reader and then are an opinion piece seeking to convince someone to your point of view. The reader should come away informed on a new topic.
- Technical Book -> This is a condensed and structured formulation of technical article, tutorial, how to guide and reference material which is treated in an extended format to an advanced level. Written for the technical reader and assumptions are often made about their competencies. Structured to ensure that the reader is brought along on the journey. The reader should come away with an in depth understanding that they can apply in their day to day life. The prime example is a textbook.
- Story -> Seeking to write to convey an emotional response in the audience. Trying to build a world and draw the reader into the world itself. The reader should come away changed in their soul.
The knowledge of audience can be applied in two situations:
- When you are writing
- When you are reading
When you are writing something down you should consciously acknowledge the audience that you’re writing for and always try to keep them in mind. If you are writing a tutorial then don’t seek to write an essay or a technical article. Likewise if you’re writing a technical article don’t make this all about reference material beyond what is necessary here, introduce the minimum level of additional context needed to make something understandable. Seek to keep this completely tight here.
You can also use this to your advantage by explicitly telling the reader what to expect from the work. If you’re writing a tutorial then tell the reader that it’s a tutorial. If it’s a general article then say so, if it’s reference material then say it’s simply reference material. Don’t be afraid to be specific in this case, the most frustrating experience for a reader is reading the wrong piece of work. Every time a reader comes across something they need to make a choice as to if the writing will be worth their time to read. Being clear and specific about what the writing is for will let the reader make an educated choice and be less frustrated in the long term. Needless to say, frustrating your readers is not a good way to leave them delighted.
You should always be conscious when your writing switches into either journaling or note taking. These types of writing are largely personal and should not be published. If you are looking to publish your journals then you should likely package this up into a blog style format and make it a bit more presentable. That is, you should edit your work. Additionally, writing down your own notes is often unhelpful for someone else. The notes package up your own personal journey of understanding as well as making assumptions about knowledge that you already have. Don’t publish these, they need an editor.
When you are reading a piece of work, either your own or someone else’s, you can ask yourself the question “who was this written for?” continuously. This will help to clarify and categorise the piece of information in this situation. Once you start to engage with the author, through the work, by questioning what they’re seeking to accomplish you are starting to become a more sophisticated reader. If you don’t know anything about a topic then going straight for the reference material is unlikely to help, a General Article or a Tutorial is probably a better starting point.
To conclude, a piece of writing should engage with its reader in a specific and known way. Don’t seek to confuse the reader by switching styles and making a general mess of the work. If you need to say two different things in two different ways then say this in two different pieces of work. It’s okay to be specific and to limit the scope of a piece of work. Seek to conclude. Seek to leave the reader with something of value.