Five essential questions to ask before you even start writing

The five questions you must ask before you even start writing

"That writer does the most who gives his reader the most knowledge, and takes from him the least time" (C. C. Colton, quoted on the wonderfully succinct Managing Your Writing blog).

Want to give your reader the most knowledge, while taking away the least time? Then ask yourself these five questions before you even start writing.

1. Who is my reader?

Clients. Employees. Investors. They all have different needs and levels of knowledge, so you need to know exactly who you’re talking to before you even put finger to keyboard.

Writing for different types of reader? Maybe you need to create different versions of your piece for each audience.

2. Who is not my reader?

The biggest mistake we see non-expert business writers make is this: writing for one of the two readers who really don’t matter. These two readers are:

a) You.

b) The person who briefed you – usually known in the corporate jargon as The Stakeholder. Because this figure is often seen as part client, part boss, the temptation can be to please them rather than advise them (which usually means reining them in).

If you really want to spare your reader’s time, learn the difference between what you or your stakeholder want to say and what your reader needs to hear.

That waffly update to employees about what some senior executive has been up to for the past quarter? That email to customers announcing the “exciting” news that the company’s just won an award?

They may make you or your stakeholder feel all warm and fuzzy, but no one else cares. So, before you start writing, ditch anything you know in your heart of hearts is of no use to your reader.

So what is useful to your reader? Well, that leads us to the next question.

3. What do I want my reader to do?

If you're not asking your reader to do something after reading your piece, you probably don't need to start writing it in the first place.

Everything you write should have what’s known in the trade as a call to action. These are the words that tell your reader what you want them to do.

Examples are: “fill in the employee survey today”, “order now and save 20%” or “here’s our business strategy and here’s what I want you to do about it”.

No call to action? No need to publish.

4. What does my reader need to know in order to do what I want them to do?

Everything you write should be geared toward the call to action – instructions, deadlines, contact details. And that's all.

Yes, that means ditching the scene-setting intro you’ve put in to warm the reader up. And that opening paragraph beginning “three years ago”, “as you know” or “as I said in my last announcement”.

Such corporate throat-clearing leaves your reader asking “so what?” and binning your work before they’ve got to the important bit - the call to action.

So if you really must provide context – an explanation of why you’re asking your reader to take action, for example – put this information after you’ve told them what you want them to do.

Remember, nobody has to read your stuff. The less essential the information, the further down you should put it.

5. What if we don’t publish?

This last question is particularly powerful.

If you or your stakeholder can’t articulate a good business case for publishing (or for including six paragraphs on how you’re “delivering transformational change across the business – blah, blah, blah”), then press that delete key.