Read. Then write.

One of the most important things any teacher or manager can do to help novices become pro writers is to discuss sample messages with them. Reading thoughtfully precedes writing successfully! The key to thoughtful reading is discussing the sample message in sufficient, relevant detail and connecting those details to future messages the writer will create.**

Here are the guidelines I’ve provided to those introducing novices to writing for workplace readers. They are more exhaustive than exemplary because I created them for an academic context. But you can adapt them for a discussion with any writer who is a novice with the message genre of interest. [Note: This is an updated post from a few years back.]

Goals

  • To read a workplace message critically (i.e., assess and explain its quality)
  • To practice analyzing the rhetorical context of workplace messages (i.e., relationship among message, writer, and audience)
  • To apply concepts from the workbook, Revising Professional Writing, and connect them to the grading rubrics we use

These goals are important to student success because the vast majority have little experience with workplace messages—especially with assessing their quality as a function of the rhetorical context.

For many decades now, nearly all language education in the US (from preschool through undergraduate) has focused on one text genre for reading (literature) and one text genre for writing (academic essays). The result is generations of adults who think reading is a puzzle-solving activity because the meaning is supposed to be “hidden,” while writing is supposed to impress an already knowledgeable audience (e.g., teachers). Adults, including our students, do not understand they have studied limited genres and that those genres didn’t teach them most of what they need to know about information development, organization, and style/tone for workplace messages.

Choosing a Sample Message

You must choose a message representing the genre of interest (i.e., sensitive letter, proposal, email announcement, etc.).  Students learn from discussion of any quality level of message samples (i.e., not mailable, mailable, or proud to mail). However, you must clearly identify the quality level of the message sample either before or after the activity.

Introducing the Activity

  1. Begin by announcing the discussion activity and the amount of time you have allotted for it. (It can be done in as little as 10 minutes.)
  2. Give directions for completing the activity. (This will be more important early in the semester or if you decide to use small group discussions.)
  3. Provide visuals as needed (the sample message, the relevant grading rubric, etc.) either as hard copy or as projections on the screen.

Asking the Right Questions (with video suggestions)

About the rhetorical context (Purpose; Audience):

  • Who is the writer? What is his/her organizational role?
  • What’s the bottom-line message?
  • Which of the four purposes (informing, directing, consulting, valuing) does the writer have for creating this message?
  • What is the relationship of the audience to the writer (power difference, value difference, social distance)?
  • What is the relationship of the audience to the message (knowledge level, sensitivity)?

About the effectiveness of the content of the message for this rhetorical context (Informative Prose; Persuasive Prose; Graphics):

  • Does the writer provide enough and the right kind of information (defining, describing, giving examples, comparing/contrasting, classifying, using outside sources)?
  • Does the writer provide evidence and interpretation for any claims?
  • Does the writer use graphics to enhance comprehension, usability, or feelings?
  • Does the writer use graphics that meet the audience’s need (to see surface detail = photograph; to see percentages of a whole = pie chart; to see steps in a process = flow chart, etc.)?
  • Do graphics use accurate and consistent proportions? Do they include labels, titles, and captions? Does the writer integrate the graphic into the text?

About the effectiveness and efficiency of the organization of content for this rhetorical context (Bottom Line; Paragraph Unity; Cohesion; Transitions):

  • Where is the bottom-line? Is this placement effective for the audience? Why?
  • What order is the content presented in? Is that order effective for the audience?
  • Do paragraphs have effective topic sentences? Are all sentences in each paragraph clearly related? Are paragraphs relatively short?
  • Do sentences or sections of the message have explicit transitions that guide the audience through the writer’s logic?
  • Does the writer organize to enhance efficiency for reading?

About the effectiveness and efficiency of the style for this rhetorical context (Conciseness; Voice; Parallelism; Word Choice; Tone):

  • Is the style appropriately concise?
  • Does the writer present parallel items in parallel form?
  • Is the style appropriately active or passive?
  • Is the word choice appropriate?
  • Is the level of formality appropriate?
  • Does the writer’s style achieve reader-orientation?
  • Is the level of directness appropriate?
  • Are presuppositions used only when the audience will agree with the writer?

About the visual impression of the message for this rhetorical context (Format):

  • Is the page layout (margins & other white space, line spacing, justification, color, etc.) effective?
  • Is typography (typeface, size, position, boldface, etc.) used consistently and for emphasis?
  • Are any groups of items presented in a list with characters or numbers to enumerate them?
  • Does the writer create a visual text that enhances efficiency for reading?

About the mechanics of the message for this rhetorical context (Punctuation; Agreement):

  • Is a written message effective and efficient or should the writer choose another medium?
  • Are there misspellings or typos that will distract the reader from the content of the message?
  • Are there sentence fragments, comma splices, or any other punctuation issues that are likely to distract the reader?
  • Are there any subject-verb disagreement issues that will be distracting?

Leading Discussion

When leading discussion, prompt students to provide answers to these questions and to link those answers to specific places in the sample message. This will not come naturally to most undergraduate students. For example, you may not be successful in getting good discussion about style by asking something general like “How effective is the style in this message?” Instead, students are likely to need more specific questions, such as “Do you think the style is concise?” Or even “Is the style of the first paragraph concise? Give me a specific example.” Obviously, you can lead the discussion most effectively when you have already analyzed the message on your own before the class meeting.

Providing the Take-away

  1. Summarize the main points, especially as the discussion applies to future writing assignments. (You can ask different groups to keep a list of main points for a specific area during the discussion.)
  2. Clearly tie these main points to the overall quality level of the message sample.

Footnote

** My approach could be classified as genre-based writing pedagogy.  Ken Hyland used the following table to show that even elementary students can be taught to read — and then write — a range of genres. I dream of such a world–where students learn to communicate with an audience in writing. And where the five-paragraph essay is just a blurred memory. Sigh . . .

Related Research

Hyland, K. (2007). Genre pedagogy: Language, literacy and L2 writing instruction. Journal of Second Language Writing, 16, pp. 148-63.

Create logical flow between sentences to promote accurate and efficient reading

I have argued that sentence variety is the enemy of efficiency. People read more accurately and efficiently when all the elements of a document are tightly connected. This includes the connection between consecutive sentences. I refer to this as cohesion (sometimes referred to as Functional Sentence Perspective by linguists).

My experience is that most adults are able to create cohesive prose at the sentence level without explicit instruction. But, for those without this skill, the problem is truly critical. Their readers struggle to read their prose and make comments about awkwardness, lack of logical “flow,” or–the most damning–the quality of the writer’s education. The kicker is that few writing teachers I’ve known understand how to help. Responding as a reader or editor is not the same as teaching.

Cohesion is briefly explained in Chapter 8 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in an academic setting, you’ll find many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to identify and fix problems with the logical flow of information. But here are some additional resources to help anyone master this critical skill:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if there’s something else you’d like to see.

Sample Document

Review a copy of the letter to a supplier. It was adapted by me based on a sample from ForestEthics (forestethics.org). The document was written within the following context:

  • Writer: the owner of an office supply store
  • Readers: representatives of the store’s suppliers of wood-based products
  • Bottom line message: the suppliers need to provide information about the sources of their products

Here’s a revised version of the letter, with more effective cohesion.

Video Tutorial

The letter to a supplier is included in this <12-minute video about cohesion in workplace documents.

For more on flow, check out this video from the writing center at the University of North Carolina.

Related Readings

There are not many posts here at Pros Write that deal with cohesion because it is relatively rare problem for adult native English speakers.  If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, check out the following sources.

Campbell (1995). Coherence, continuity, and cohesion: Theoretical foundations for document design. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Clark, H. H., & Haviland, S. E. (1977). Comprehension and the given-new contract. Discourse Production and Comprehension. Discourse Processes: Advances in Research and Theory1, 1-40.

Crossley, S. A., Allen, D., & McNamara, D. S. (2012). Text simplification and comprehensible input: A case for an intuitive approach. Language Teaching Research, 16(1), 89-108.

Kopple, W. J. V. (1982). Functional sentence perspective, composition, and reading. College composition and communication, 50-63.

How useful are readability formulas?

Not very. I read about some interesting research last spring and meant to write more about it then.  Here’s the bottom line. The researchers evaluated 9 of the most commonly used formulas. Here’s how Willingham summarizes their findings:

All of the readability formulas were more accurate for higher ability than lower ability students. But only one—the Dale-Chall—was consistently above chance.

Only the Dale-Chall predicted reading ability better than flipping a coin. Ouch!

GunningFogIndex-300x224In general, writing experts dismiss the utility of readability formulas as a means of improving the quality of writing produced in the workplace. I mentioned the range of methods for evaluating quality before. The ACM Journal of Computer Documentation dedicated an entire issue to the topic of readability to usher in the 21st millennium century (Volume 24 Issue 3, Aug. 2000). I’ve copied their table of contents with live links and available abstracts for those of you with an interest.

Table of Contents

Introduction to this classic reprint and commentaries
Bob Waite
Pages: 105-106
The measurement of readability: useful information for communicators
George R. Klare
Pages: 107-121
Readability and computer documentation
Gretchen Hargis
Pages: 122-131
Traditional readability concerns are alive and well, but subsumed within several more recent documentation quality efforts. For example, concerns with interestingness and translatability for global markets, with audience analysis and task sufficiency, and with reader appropriateness of technical text all involve readability, but often in ways not easily measured by any formula.
Readability formulas have even more limitations than Klare discusses
Janice Redish
Pages: 132-137
A literature review reveals many technical weaknesses of readability formulas (when compared to direct usability testing with typical readers): they were developed for children s school books, not adult technical documentation;they ignore between-reader differences and the effects of content, layout, and retrieval aids on text usefulness; they emphasize countable features at the expense of more subtle contributors to text comprehension.
Readability formulas in the new millennium: what’s the use?
Karen A. Schriver
Pages: 138-140
While readability formulas were intended as a quick benchmark for indexing readabilty, they are inherently unreliable: they depend on criterion (calibration) passages too short to reflect cohesiveness, too varied to support between-formula comparisons, and too text-oriented to account for the effects of lists, enumerated sequences,and tables on text comprehension. But readability formulas did spark decades of research on what comprehension really involoves.
Klare’s “useful information” is useful for Web designers
Kristin Zibell
Pages: 141-147
In many ways the writing principles that Klare recommended 37 years ago to promote high readability scores still apply to web-site design. Behind the pursuit of readability lies audience analysis, a concern with the intellectual level, previous experience, motivation, and reading goals of ones intended audience. Suitably adjusted to take account of online interactivity, those same concerns should guide design work on web structure and interfaces today.
Readable computer documentation
George R. Klare
Pages: 148-168
Arguing that current approaches to understanding and constructing computer documentation are based on the flawed assumption that documentation works as a closed system, the authors present an alternative way of thinking about the texts that make computer technologies usable for people. Using two historical case studies, the authors describe how a genre ecologies framework provides new insights into the complex ways that people use texts to make sense of computer technologies. The framework is designed to help researchers and documentors account for contingency, decentralization, and stability in the multiple texts the people use while working with computers. The authors conclude by proposing three heuristic tools to support the work of technical communicators engaged in developing documentation today: exploratory questions, genre ecology diagrams, and organic engineering.

How people really read

I’m celebrating my 2nd anniversary on Pros Write with a story about how people read. I’ve used this fable for many, many years in classes and workshops to get people to think about the way people read in the real world. And the importance of a plain language approach to writing.

The Geologist’s Trousers

 

Photo Credit: theobjectivesea photography via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: theobjectivesea photography via Compfight cc
Somewhere in the western US, let’s say near Valentine, Nebraska, a rancher reaches into his mailbox and pulls out a brown envelope.
 USGS_green The logo is for the United States Geological Survey. He thinks:“Why are they writing to me?”

“Do I have to do something?”

 usgs 1 He opens the letter, begins reading & thinks:“Okay. This sounds like a form letter.”

He decides to try to determine if the letter is junk mail.

 usgs 2 He reads the first sentence & thinks:“Huh?”

 

 usgs 3 He skips ahead & thinks:“Why can’t they just say what they mean in English?”

He decides to give the rest of the letter a quick scan.

 usgs 4 He looks for dollar signs or numbers & thinks:“I must not owe any money.”
 usgs 5 He skips to the end, reads & thinks:“But I’m NOT interested! What’s any of this got to do with me?”

 

He puts the letter in a pile on his desk and forgets about it.

Photo Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via Compfight cc
Several weeks later a geologist from the USGS is bending down digging into the soil on some land near Valentine.

Photo Credit: Tigresblanco via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Tigresblanco via Compfight cc
He is terrified when he hears a click, looks up, and sees a shotgun pointed at him.
 USGS geologist The young USGS geologist stammers:“Soil samples! We sent you a letter. We told you we were going to visit your property to collect soil samples for a study!”

I was told this is a true story. But I can’t for the life of me remember where I first encountered it! If you know the source, please post a comment so I can give credit where it’s due.

Unexpected results of research on format and parallelism

I regularly advise writers to use grammatical parallelism and visual formatting to influence document quality. (Use the links if you don’t know what I mean.) But I saw some evidence presented by colleagues at a recent conference that led me to refine that advice. Here’s the bottom line for those who don’t want the details:

  1. Use both parallelism and format to improve readability reading efficiency and accurate identification and recall of information.
  2. Use format alone to improve readability reading efficiency and accurate identification and recall of information.
  3. Don’t use parallelism alone to improve readability accurate identification and recall of information.

It pains me to offer you #3. It runs counter to what I’ve long held to be true. I suspect that’s true for many of you as well. But I can’t ignore the evidence. Ugh. Details below.

July 22, 2014 Update: I’ve tweaked the wording of my guidance based on more investigation of related research. See this post for details.

Some Background on the Research

The researchers did two studies where they asked people to read documents and then tested their recall by asking multiple-choice content questions without allowing them to look back at the documents.

Study 1. To test the effect of grammatical parallelism and visual formatting on readability, 100 people read a version of a passage from Ordnance Instructions for the United States Navy from 1866. (This limited the possibility of influence based on previous knowledge.)  There were 4 document versions: (a) parallel [P+] and formatted [V+], (b) parallel and unformatted, (c) nonparallel and formatted, and (d) nonparallel and unformatted.

ParallelABC.005 cropped

They found that accuracy was most affected by visual formatting and not much at all by grammatical parallelism. These results are the basis for my first two pieces of advice at the beginning of this post.

Study 2. To test the effect of grammatical parallelism and visual formatting on emotional response, 87 people read one of the four versions of the same passage from Study 1 followed by a question measuring their emotional response and then received either (a) parallel [Q+] or (b) nonparallel multiple-choice content questions again followed by a question measuring their emotional response.

ParallelABC.008 cropped

They found the greatest inconsistency of emotional response in document versions without visual formatting and with grammatical parallelism of both the reading text and the multiple-choice questions. These results are the basis for my third piece of advice at the beginning of this post.

So What’s Wrong with Inconsistent Emotional Response?

If you’ve read this far, I’m pretty sure this is the question you’re asking. Here goes.

clashing visual elements

Unity is a fundamental quality of human perception. Humans actively seek and prefer experiences that we can interpret as unified. This idea from Gestalt psychology is one I wrote about extensively in a 1995 book on document design. The lack of unity or consistency in color is the reason Smashing Magazine used the website shown at right in its Ugly Showcase.

My colleagues, Nicole Amare and Alan Manning, argue that unity or consistency is especially important for types of textual elements they call “decoratives.” That includes grammatical parallelism (and color). Decoratives are aesthetic. Parallelism does not convey information itself. Rather, it evokes a feeling about that information. Many people describe parallel text with terms related to organization: tidy, orderly, tight, neat, uncluttered, etc. As Manning said,

Parallel but visually unformatted text evidently disrupts that unified feeling and is therefore less desirable.

Visually formatted but nonparallel text was not a problem, confirming visual format is far more salient to readers than parallelism. I suspect inconsistent feelings slow down cognitive processing and distract us from our quest for comprehension. I’ve long believed parallelism affects efficiency more than effectiveness in documents with a primarily informative function. But that research hasn’t been done — yet.

References

Amare, N. & Manning, A. (October, 2013). Grammatical and visual parallelism in business communication pedagogy. Association for Business Communication Convention, New Orleans, LA.

Amare, N. & Manning, A. (2013). A Unified Theory of Information Design: Visuals, Text & Ethics. Amityville, NY: Baywood.

Campbell, K.S. (1995). Coherence, Continuity & Cohesion: Theoretical Foundations for Document Design. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

What do your format choices mean to readers?

Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz summarize the implications of some recent psychological research on format this way:

Any variable that facilitates or impairs fluent information processing can profoundly affect people’s judgements and decisions. [Writers] are therefore well advised to present information in a form that facilitates easy processing: if it’s easy to read, it seems easy to do, pretty, good, and true.

Let’s explore this using a memo with a simple plan for reducing energy costs in an office as an example.

Memo A
Memo A

Simplicity of typeface determines perceived simplicity of content

The actual content — every single word — and its arrangement is the same in Memo A and Memo B.

Memo B
Memo B

But we can predict readers of Memo B will believe the content is difficult to understand or the recommendation is difficult to implement because of the typefaces chosen.

  • Memo A uses MS Word’s old defaults: Arial for headings and Times New Roman for body text.
  • Memo B uses Forte for headings and Mistral for body text.

If readers considering the proposed recommendation could choose between reading Memo A or Memo B, Memo A would win out nearly every time. That’s because typefaces influence how fluently information can be processed. We equate easy to read with easy to understand or do.

Familiarity of typeface and words determine perceived risk within content

Memo C
Memo C

Another problem with using the typefaces in Memo B has to do with their lack of familiarity. It turns out that we associate risk with the unfamiliar.

Here’s another example of this principle. The content of Memo A and Memo C is identical except Memo A uses the word “reduce,” while Memo C replaces that word with “curtail.” Nothing else is different between the two memos.

Yet we can predict that readers of Memo C will believe the recommendation is more risky than readers of Memo A because of the use of the less familiar “curtail.” In this case, we’re talking about a difference in style rather than format. The point is that we equate easy to read –whether because of familiar typeface or word choice — with safety.

Legibility determines perceived truthfulness of content

Memo D
Memo D

Memo D is exactly the same as Memo A except that it is less legible because of the low color contrast between the black text on the blue background. We can predict that readers of Memo D will believe less in the truth of its content than readers of Memo A. We equate easy to read with true.

In sum, your format choices influence what readers think of your content. Is it difficult or easy to use and understand? Is what you’re talking about risky or safe? Is it the truth?  All excellent reasons to learn a few principles for choosing a successful format for your documents. My video tutorial (see the link below) covers the basics of using typefaces, page layout, and lists.

Thanks to Cheryl Stephens for making me aware of this article in The Psychologist.  The original is worth a read to learn more about the research behind successful formatting choices.

A simple way to test your reader’s response before document delivery

plus-minusI’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. Nothing signals your status as a pro workplace writer as much as testing an important document with representative readers before you deliver it.

But reader testing can be expensive. You need equipment and training to conduct eye-tracking studies. Thanks to two of my Dutch colleagues, Menno de Jong and Peter Jan Schellens, there is a simple and inexpensive technique I recommend. In fact, we have our undergraduate business students use it.

In the plus-minus technique, the writer recruits a few representative readers. More and better representatives give you better results. (Here’s a free report from experts on recruiting folks for this kind of testing.) The writer gives the readers the draft document and collects their impressions.

Here are the instructions we provide readers for document testing.

Please read the entire document, including the parts that you would probably skip “in real life.” Take your time. Read the document at your own speed.

1. While reading, we want you to place a plus (+) and a minus (-) in the margin anytime you judge something as positive or negative. But do not think too long about your impressions. Any plus or minus is okay, as long as it reflects what you are thinking as you read.

For example, if you find something in the document funny, interesting, clear, or important, write a plus. If you find something in the document not interesting, unclear, or unimportant, write a minus. You can write down pluses and minuses for any reason.

2. Please indicate which part of the document a plus or minus applies to by circling or underlining it.

Decide for yourself which units of the document to mark with a plus or minus. For instance, you can write down a plus or minus for a paragraph, a heading, a sentence, a word, an illustration, or a caption.

3. When you have finished, we will ask you to talk about your impressions of this document.

After the readers are finished, someone debriefs them. This can be the writer — although it’s probably best if the reader doesn’t know the interviewer wrote the draft.  Here are the instructions we provide for the interview.

Tell the reader you would like to learn about their impressions of the document so that it can be improved. Remind him/her that all of his/her responses are important to you. Ask if you can audiotape your interview. If you do not audiotape, make sure you go slowly enough to get all information written down.

Ask the reader to describe what they were thinking for each plus and minus. Get the reader to be as specific as possible about the places where he or she felt positively or negatively. You must be able to identify specific words, paragraphs, headings, figures, etc. later during your analysis of the results. As soon as possible after the interview, summarize your interpretation of the reader’s responses using the questions below. (Not all questions will be relevant for all interviews.)

    1. Does the reader correctly understand the given information? What worked well? What is unclear?
    2. Will the reader pick up the document and start reading it? Why or why not? Will the reader focus on the most important information? Why or why not?
    3. Can the reader apply the given information in a productive way and in a realistic setting? What seems to be most helpful? Where does the reader go wrong?
    4. Does the reader find statements to be credible? Which ones? Why or why not?
    5. Does the reader like the way or the order in which information is presented? What worked well? What needs to be revised?
    6. Does the reader get new, relevant and complete information? What does the reader like? What does the reader want to skip?

The results you collect from representative readers will identify any major issues with your draft and help you determine what should be revised before you deliver the document to your actual readers.

The plus-minus technique allows you to balance the importance of concurrent testing (i.e., learning what the reader is thinking in real time) with the simplicity of retrospective testing (i.e., learning what the reader thinks after he or she has read your document). You can learn more about reader testing (usability testing) from the Center for Plain Language or the Nielsen Norman Group (user testing).

Want satisfied workplace readers? Give them an efficient reading experience

Eye Tracking Measures TextEfficiency. One of the greatest challenges for amateur workplace writers, who have not yet wrapped their heads around the fact that their colleagues do not read like  teachers do. I’ve made the point many times that teachers are obligated to read their students’ documents thoughtfully. And that workplace readers actually read the same way writers do — by skimming and scanning for what they need. I just came across a nice explanation of how people read by Jessica Love at The American Scholar. It should help you understand why efficiency matters and what writers need to do to create efficient messages.

In very basic terms, reading involves our eyes hopping from one point in the text (whether on paper or on screen) to another in a less-than-smooth pattern as shown in the graphic above.

Reading a sentence, our eyes seem to glide across the page, stopping each long, fluid sweep only at the margin. They seem to glide, but in actuality they hop in a volatile way, landing here and here and sometimes here. Psychologists who study reading call these landings “fixations.” Each time we fixate, we are able to take in approximately four letters to the left of our fixation point and some 15 letters to the right. . .

This asymmetry would work differently with writing systems that are not ordered left to right like English.

When our eyes land on a point (fixate), we see a limited amount of text clearly. (The graphic mistakenly shows equal acuity left and right of the fixation point.)

EyeTrackingFixationsText

Thus, with each fixation we glean information from about 20 letters. We can’t necessarily identify all 20 letters: the outermost are relegated to our fuzzy peripheral vision. We may learn only that one letter is capitalized or another contains a curve—information that will help us identify that letter on our next fixation but isn’t going to do the trick on this one. Generally, to decode what’s in front of us, we must fixate every eight letters.

Decoding begins quickly, within 60 milliseconds of landing. The shape of the letter string as a whole—not just its constituent letters—assists us in our endeavor, so odd fonts or cApiTAlizAtiOn patterns slow us down. But before we’ve finished, before we consciously know we’ve read the words fonts and capitalization and have added these to the other words swimming around most prominently in memory, we have already started to plan our next fixation.

The lesson here is that your typographic choices influence reading efficiency.  Typographer, Raff Herrmann, makes a convincing argument for the onion layer model of legibility. The graphic shows that choices of background color, letter spacing, word spacing, etc. all influence legibility. And that reading prose or copy text (blocks of words and sentences) is the core area of concern with legibility.

type legibility

When our eyes move while reading, our mind actively predicts what came before and, especially, after the point we just left.

During a hop, known as a saccade, we are unable to perceive any letters at all. . . Given that fixations average 200 to 300 milliseconds, and saccades 20 to 30, we spend about 10 percent of our time blind to what we’re reading. But we have learned to “mask” the saccade, to fill in this brief period of blindness with perceptual information from before and after it. We have tricked ourselves into seeing a smooth flow of sentences when we’re really getting a choppy surge of words and half-words. Some quick math suggests that the absolute fastest any of us can read—and actually read each word—is 500 words per minute. This assumes no backtracking, though nearly 15 percent of our saccades are regressions. It also assumes no comprehension beyond word identification. In practice, most of us read about 250 words per minute.

Read more of Jessica’s post if you’re wondering about “speed” reading.

Skimming in a text formatted as words and sentences — what we might call “dense” prose — results in random skimming.

One might assume that given how smart we are and all the nifty tricks we’ve developed to mask saccades and get our perceptual spans to bulge to the right, we’d at least be decent skimmers. One would think we’d be able to skim somewhat selectively. If we want to skim Walden for survival tips, aren’t we able to do so? Unfortunately not. We’re okay at skimming texts for particular words, at treating “Self-Reliance” like a giant word-find puzzle, only if we know exactly what we’re looking for. We can’t get around having to read something to know what it says, and we have to know what it says to know if it is relevant. But because skimming is essentially sampling, we’re just as likely to skip over the relevant as the irrelevant.

EyeTrackingMeasuresText+Visuals

But skimming becomes purposeful scanning when a text is formatted visually — with white space for paragraph breaks, headings with larger or different typefaces, colored boxes, etc. as shown with the graphic at left.

The only thing that prevents skimming from being an entirely random pursuit is that some information becomes legitimately available to us before we read: we know where something is on a page without knowing what it says. Therefore, because the first sentence of a paragraph often gives us clues about what will come next, we might safely skip the rest of a paragraph if the first sentence is about pedometers and we seek the ratio of sugar to water most attractive to hummingbirds. Unsurprisingly, this “topic sentence” method appears to be particularly helpful for skimming webpages, where graphics and bullet points corral the eyes wherever content providers or marketers see fit. I have strong, if anecdotal, evidence that this same technique rarely works with freshman comp papers.

Of course, Jessica ends by alluding to the fact that amateurs writing academic genres like essays often fail to craft the first sentence in a paragraph as an accurate prediction of the message in the remainder of that block of text.  Because I assume Jessica’s reading these texts as a teacher, she may be irritated by the inefficiency and may reduce the grade earned because of it, but she is still reading very differently from a client or boss because she is obligated to puzzle through the text in order to help the writer. Her student writers shouldn’t expect that kind of attention or dedication from their workplace readers.

My video tutorials include many techniques for creating an efficient reading experience, including the use of topic sentences to create paragraph unity.  But organizing content with simple formatting techniques such as headings and white space is arguably the easiest way for any writer to create more efficient reading experiences. (See the first post listed below.) With an appropriate heading, Jessica wouldn’t be completely dependent on a topic sentence to understand the writer’s purpose or point. That’s because formatting provides visual cues that help the reader scan for the information they need within legible prose.

Speaking of how readers judge writers . . .

It’s a mistake to think your readers aren’t forming perceptions of you based on your written messages . . .  My favorite in this amusing image about text messages is the first one. It’s no coincidence that readers label someone who doesn’t get to the point until the end the “professor.”  Students don’t learn to put the bottom line first until they get hammered by their first boss for writing like a professor! More evidence that academic writing is poor preparation for the writing you do for the rest of your life.

text-messaging-habits-we-all-hate

Pros read thoughtfully before they write successfully

One of the most important things any teacher or manager can do to help amateurs become pro writers is to discuss sample messages with them. The key here is discussing the sample message in sufficient, relevant detail and connecting those details to future messages the writer will create.** Here are the guidelines I’ve provided before to those introducing undergraduate business students to writing for workplace readers. They were written for an educational setting. And they are more exhaustive than exemplary. But you can adapt them for a discussion with any writer who is a novice with the message genre of interest. Reading thoughtfully precedes writing successfully!

Goals

  • To read a workplace message critically (i.e., assess and explain its quality)
  • To practice analyzing the rhetorical context of workplace messages (i.e., relationship among message, writer, and audience)
  • To apply concepts from the workbook, Revising Professional Writing, and connect them to the grading rubrics we use

These goals are important to student success because the vast majority have little experience with workplace messages—especially with assessing their quality as a function of the rhetorical context.

For many decades now, nearly all language education in the US (from preschool through undergraduate) has focused on one text genre for reading (literature) and one text genre for writing (academic essays). The result is generations of adults who think reading is a puzzle-solving activity because the meaning is supposed to be “hidden,” while writing is supposed to impress an already knowledgeable audience (e.g., teachers). Adults, including our students, do not understand they have studied limited genres and that those genres didn’t teach them most of what they need to know about information development, organization, and style/tone for workplace messages.

Choosing a Sample Message

You must choose a message representing the genre of interest (i.e., sensitive letter, proposal, email announcement, etc.).  Students learn from discussion of any quality level of message samples (i.e., not mailable, mailable, or proud to mail). However, you must clearly identify the quality level of the message sample either before or after the activity.

Introducing the Activity

  1. Begin by announcing the discussion activity and the amount of time you have allotted for it. (It can be done in as little as 10 minutes.)
  2. Give directions for completing the activity. (This will be more important early in the semester or if you decide to use small group discussions.)
  3. Provide visuals as needed (the sample message, the relevant grading rubric, etc.) either as hard copy or as projections on the screen.

Asking the Right Questions (with video suggestions)

About the rhetorical context (Purpose; Audience):

  • Who is the writer? What is his/her organizational role?
  • What’s the bottom-line message?
  • Which of the four purposes (informing, directing, consulting, valuing) does the writer have for creating this message?
  • What is the relationship of the audience to the writer (power difference, value difference, social distance)?
  • What is the relationship of the audience to the message (knowledge level, sensitivity)?

About the effectiveness of the content of the message for this rhetorical context (Informative Prose; Persuasive Prose; Graphics):

  • Does the writer provide enough and the right kind of information (defining, describing, giving examples, comparing/contrasting, classifying, using outside sources)?
  • Does the writer provide evidence and interpretation for any claims?
  • Does the writer use graphics to enhance comprehension, usability, or feelings?
  • Does the writer use graphics that meet the audience’s need (to see surface detail = photograph; to see percentages of a whole = pie chart; to see steps in a process = flow chart, etc.)?
  • Do graphics use accurate and consistent proportions? Do they include labels, titles, and captions? Does the writer integrate the graphic into the text?

About the effectiveness and efficiency of the organization of content for this rhetorical context (Bottom Line; Paragraph Unity; Cohesion; Transitions):

  • Where is the bottom-line? Is this placement effective for the audience? Why?
  • What order is the content presented in? Is that order effective for the audience?
  • Do paragraphs have effective topic sentences? Are all sentences in each paragraph clearly related? Are paragraphs relatively short?
  • Do sentences or sections of the message have explicit transitions that guide the audience through the writer’s logic?
  • Does the writer organize to enhance efficiency for reading?

About the effectiveness and efficiency of the style for this rhetorical context (Conciseness; Voice; Parallelism; Word Choice; Tone):

  • Is the style appropriately concise?
  • Does the writer present parallel items in parallel form?
  • Is the style appropriately active or passive?
  • Is the word choice appropriate?
  • Is the level of formality appropriate?
  • Does the writer’s style achieve reader-orientation?
  • Is the level of directness appropriate?
  • Are presuppositions used only when the audience will agree with the writer?

About the visual impression of the message for this rhetorical context (Format):

  • Is the page layout (margins & other white space, line spacing, justification, color, etc.) effective?
  • Is typography (typeface, size, position, boldface, etc.) used consistently and for emphasis?
  • Are any groups of items presented in a list with characters or numbers to enumerate them?
  • Does the writer create a visual text that enhances efficiency for reading?

About the mechanics of the message for this rhetorical context (Punctuation; Agreement):

  • Is a written message effective and efficient or should the writer choose another medium?
  • Are there misspellings or typos that will distract the reader from the content of the message?
  • Are there sentence fragments, comma splices, or any other punctuation issues that are likely to distract the reader?
  • Are there any subject-verb disagreement issues that will be distracting?

Leading Discussion

When leading discussion, prompt students to provide answers to these questions and to link those answers to specific places in the sample message. This will not come naturally to most undergraduate students. For example, you may not be successful in getting good discussion about style by asking something general like “How effective is the style in this message?” Instead, students are likely to need more specific questions, such as “Do you think the style is concise?” Or even “Is the style of the first paragraph concise? Give me a specific example.” Obviously, you can lead the discussion most effectively when you have already analyzed the message on your own before the class meeting.

Providing the Take-away

  1. Summarize the main points, especially as the discussion applies to future writing assignments. (You can ask different groups to keep a list of main points for a specific area during the discussion.)
  2. Clearly tie these main points to the overall quality level of the message sample.

Footnote

** My approach could be classified as genre-based writing pedagogy.  Ken Hyland used the following table in a 2004 research paper to clarify that even elementary students can be taught to read — and then write — a range of genres. I dream of such a world. Where students learn to communicate with an audience in their writing. And where the five-paragraph essay is just a distant memory. Sigh . . .