Who do you write for?

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I started this blog to have a separate place to write about my “professional” thoughts and I guess I thought I could maybe add a little value to the cluttered world of technical communications, or at the very least raise my profile a little. Yes, I have an ego, but it’s kept in check for the most part.

However, like my other blog, the main reason this blog exists is to give me a place that I can consider and process my thoughts. I’ve always found writing things down helped me get a good sense of what they were, even if I didn’t necessarily start with a cohesive picture in mind. Sometimes the simplest issue, one that has eluded me for some time, leaps into focus when I start writing. I’m not sure if it’s always been that way or I’ve now trained myself into such a habit but I’m not complaining, it works for me and I’ll admit that I still get a little buzz when something “clicks”.

If I were in a cartoon a light-bulb would *plink* into existence above my head when that happens. Reality can be such a disappointment.

Today brought a good example of such a moment and rather than deleting my thoughts, I’d thought I’d post them here. Sharing is power after all (badly paraphrasing remains inexcusable).

One continuing theme on most of the mailing lists I follow and in various blog posts across the land, is that of knowing your audience. Knowing why you are writing, and who you are writing for are the fundamental tenets of our profession. They are so fundamental that, if I’m honest, the incessant reminders about them do start to grate somewhat. After all I’m a professional, how many times do I need to be told to consider my audience? How many times do we need to restate something we all know and understand.

I’m happy to admit that some will know more about their audience than others. Some will make do with a rough approximation of what their audience expects, whilst others will interview and analyse their customers and gather requirements and direction directly.

Regardless of your level of commitment to understanding them, anyone who is writing must (surely) consider their audience. Yet, at every turn, the answer to many questions all stem from that presumption, and are presented in simplistic terms. Know your audience they say. OK OK, I get it!

The thing is, after reading such a response for the umpteenth time it suddenly struck me that yes, we do need to be reminded of this basic fact, time and again.

We all have pressures on our work. Whether those pressures come from commitments made to others, from our own professional integrity, or directly from the customer, they all serve to focus us on the end goal and usually to start thinking in terms of quantity. We know we need to document the new interface to the ACME Widget and when pressure is exerted their is a temptation to take shortcuts, and the easiest shortcut is, by and large, to forget the audience.

The cardinal sin allows us to omit information on the presumption that they will “probably know it”, to structure the information according to UI rather than task, and ultimately to regress to a “if you can click it, document it” mentality. That may be a valid mode in certain circumstances but that will depend upon, yeah you guessed it, your audience.

Audience analysis, the use of personas, call it what you will, if you don’t have at least a rough idea of the type of person you are writing for then why bother? You won’t be structing the information correctly, you won’t be pitching the level of information appropriately, and you most certainly won’t be thinking around the various conceptual models your audience are likely to use and understand. The more you know, the better you can focus your documentation, drilling down into the tasks they need to complete and what they need to know before they begin. The better your knowledge of your audience the more likely it is you’ll produce documentation that they can use.

Put it this way, if you aren’t writing for a specific audience, who ARE you writing for?

Ooops.

I’ve gone and done exactly what I said annoyed me, lectured you all on knowing your audience when you already know that you need to know that. You know?

Next time I read yet another “Depends on your audience” response in a mailing list I’m going to try and remember that advice and apply it to my current work.

Addendum: Charles Cooper has been considering the same thing.