The following is adapted from material I have written for environmentalists. I hope it’s useful to writers on other subjects.
When everything we write supports the message we want to communicate, we have the chance to produce well structured writing. Content that serves no purpose is difficult to place into a coherent, flowing and logical outline.
To know whether content serves a purpose we have to understand why we are communicating, who we are communicating to and how we want them to respond.
Defining our purpose
What’s the message?
Who’s it for?
What response do we want?
Environmental campaign writing is designed to be read by specialists and general interest readers. Environmentalists write to raise awareness of issues and to encourage a response from readers.
Who reads environmentalist content?
lawyers and law makers
scientists and teachers
leaders of all kinds
activists and campaigners
and more …
Writing an article for biologists about river pollution is not like writing to politicians about how a river helps the local economy. The two documents have different focuses. The first writer needs to be comfortable writing about science. The second should be a competent local economist.
We could say that each readership group is a niche. And just as birds evolve their beaks to specialise within particular ecological niches, writers also adapt their skills and knowledge for specific readership niches.
The magazine industry caters for readerships such as fitness fans, wildlife lovers and DIY improvers. Many successful journalists work in just a few niches.
Watching magazine journalists at work is a lesson in how to structure content towards different audiences. These writers are experts in choosing material to interest particular groups.
Example – Jenny goes eco-camping in the fens
Wildlife magazine journalist Jenny spends a weekend eco-camping in the fens in Cambridgeshire. She researches and submits articles to four wildlife magazines.
“10 rare fenland birds” goes to Fenland Weekly. “Rare butterfly near Cambridge” goes to Butterfly Monthly. “I met a seal in the river Ouse” goes to Reader’s Wildlife Encounters. “Eco-camping in the fens is wonderful” goes to Eco-holidays Quarterly.
Three articles are accepted. The Fenland Weekly editor asks for a rewrite. He wants Jenny to focus entirely on her encounter with an owl. Jenny agrees to a rewrite.
Jenny and the editor had different ideas because they used their artistic judgement. Deciding what content is suitable for a readership is part logical deduction and part creative instinct. The following exercises highlight the logical deduction aspect of tailoring content to readers.
Exercises in logical deduction
Jenny has written four articles to persuade groups to support special protections for a large (and fictional) pond near Oxford. Can you link the article to the intended readership group? Do you recognise the priorities of individual readership groups?
Oxford City Council
Oxford Infants School
The National Council for Lawyers
The National Institute for Ornithology
Oxfordshire pond is a test case for English and Welsh environmental law
How our big pond brings tourists and money to Oxford
Big Oxfordshire pond supports rare birds
Make a model of the big pond from egg boxes
Of course, lawyers want to read about test cases, infants like egg box crafts, ornithologists love birds and city councils adore tourist income. Jenny has written articles for each group that focus on what they’re interested in.
Bob has written for the Infants School newsletter. Jenny tells him to change his article because some content is too grown up. What sections should Bob remove?
Sections of Bob’s article
European Union law and our big pond. Lovely, furry animals that live near the big pond. How many fish live in the big pond. Metaphors of ponds in 18th-century Japanese poetry.
English children under 11 are likely to overwhelmed by EU law and historical Japanese metaphors. When we write for specific readership groups we have to judge whether content is too advanced, basic or specialised for them.
(I should add, as well, that EU law and Japanese poetry are not very relevant to readers interested in an Oxfordshire pond.)
When we know who we are writing for and why, it helps us to direct our writing into a shape that pleases them.
We keep content relevant and interesting. We avoid writing in a way that’s too basic or too informative.