Question to Ask: How Will the Reader Get Here?

Turkey, pretending to look like Mars

What questions do you ask when first given a writing assignment?

I’ve previously posted that “who’s the audience” is one of the first questions a professional writer asks. Now I’ll talk about another biggie:

How will the audience get to the page in question?

The answer can color the entire document. And if you don’t ask, then your work could end up being frustrating to write, and to read.

Knowing the answers helps you know, among other things:

  • The reader’s knowledge of the subject
  • The reader’s state of mind.

This information helps you know whether to write tons of explanatory copy, just the deep dive techy stuff, sales and marketing copy, or something else.

An example is in order.

Let’s say I’m asked to write a FAQ web page about driving a vehicle on the surface of Mars. (It will happen!)

How does the audience get here?

  • From an advertisement that gave them no information at all?
  • From a detailed document that said, “for more information, see”?
  • From a brochure selling the benefits of driving?
  • From an email sent only to ex-Venus drivers?
  • From a knowledge-base article?

The answer implies whether the reader is seriously interested, or just on a lark. Whether the reader is extremely knowledgeable, or still in the dark. Whether the reader is ready to bite, or just wants to bark.

And the more you know, the better you’re able to target your writing and save people the frustration of either reading what they already know, or not reading what they need to know.

So, along with “who’s the audience,” “how will they get here” is part of the boilerplate questions that I automatically ask every new person requesting copy.

Are there other questions that are more important to ask right away? Are there better ways to rhyme with lark? Let me know!

See: (it doesn’t go anywhere, but maybe some day it will!)

Question to ask: Who is the audience (this is my earlier post and may also be listed in the auto-generated links below)


3 Responses to “Question to Ask: How Will the Reader Get Here?”

  1. September 22, 2010 at 9:09 am #

    Whether the reader is looking for a minnow, or for the whole shark? Naah. I like your “bark” sentence better.

    This question neatly encapsulates several aspects of the audience analysis. I’d never thought of it in these terms before, but from now on I will. Thanks, Rob

  2. September 22, 2010 at 9:47 am #

    While it’s a good idea to know how a reader gets to the content, it may not really change how you write a particular topic. While I agree that someone who has little knowledge who arrives at a topic may need more information, when they get to the topic the only requirement is that there are enough relationships from that topic to other content so you can get more information, if needed. The only other solution to the problem would be to have an auto-generated topic that assembles all the required content depending on information from the browser about the source of the referral. That may be in the offing sometime in the future and, when it comes, will change how we write the relationships between topics.

  3. September 22, 2010 at 10:03 am #

    Thanks for the comments!

    Larry: Thanks for the poetic validation! 😉

    Julio: I think the best service to the reader is to present a good guess at what they need to know right now, plus (as you say) an easy way to find more information.

    Knowledge about how they got here can be a helpful data point in guessing what they need to know now.

    Of course, for help systems, it’s often impossible to know the reader’s path to a topic.

    For single web pages, like a standalone FAQ or product information page, it’s a bit easier to know where they came from, and bit more of a hassle to the reader to keep clicking for more information. That’s really the kind of thing I meant in my post.

Leave a Reply