Thursday, March 22, 2007

Drawing the reader in

I read a lot of material - some short, some long. A lot of it is mandatory work-related reading, so I can get quite selective about the remaining pieces - if you want me to read something, you need to convince me. I'm willing to give you some of my time upfront, but that may be less than 5 seconds (I kid you not). If what I read in that period seems interesting then I'll give you some more of my time, but even then my commitment isn't open ended; you need to continually convince me to keep going (at least until I can see the end in sight). So how do you do this?

You should be able to see the solution in a typical newspaper article. The article probably has this structure:

  • the impact of the story is captured in the headline;

  • the first paragraph gives a summary of the whole story;

  • the next few paragraphs expand on the first paragraph, but still omit details;

  • the details are contained in the main body of the article

Each reader should be able to read until they've got the level of detail they need - they shouldn't be forced to read from beginning to end just to get an overview.

We have the same problems whenever we write a document presenting something complex (especially when we need someone to make a decision based on the material), and particularly when we write a resume. Make sure that the first few paragraphs contain some sort of summary, something that will convince the reader that it's worth continuing. If a resume starts with the details of the candidates current job, it better be a very interesting job, and if I'm your reader you've got less than 5 seconds to convince me. Bullet points are easy for me to scan in that time; dense text isn't. As you increase my interest and commitment, you can be more demanding of me and I'll be more tolerant.

When you're working on the web you have other structure you can work with as well. Maybe you can build something with Javascript so that the details are available only when the reader asks for them; in that case you don't need to adopt the linear, gradual descent style of the newspaper, you can make the details available wherever they're needed. You can also present sidebars, summaries and pictures that might not have a place in a text only, paper based document.

You may or may not need to give the reader a sense of closure. If you need a decision or an action, you need to make that clear early on, but you should also restate it at the end of the work. You might also benefit from a summary of the main points, related back to the original introduction. But for something like a resume you can probably get away with "here are the rest of the details" - it's expected, and the reader knows they'll only be interested in some of it, but you still should make it easy to pick one point from another.

Be conscious of this approach - see if you can spot in what you read, and bear it in mind when you're writing. Eventually you'll refine it until the transitions are seamless, and your reader will never know why they find your work so interesting!

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