Writing for Everyone

Various experts will tell you that you must write to your audience. They will also say that if you try to please everyone, you will fail.

But when you blog, you don’t always know exactly who your audience is. And even if you think you know who they are (for example, travelers or technical writers), you probably don’t know a lot about them personally.

For example, do you know if any of your visitors have the following concerns?

  • Sensory (blindness, hearing, speech, or a combination)
  • Physical or motor
  • Learning (dyslexia, dyscalculia, autism)
  • Psychiatric (anxiety, attention deficit disorder, depression)
  • Cognitive (traumatic brain injuries, epilepsy)
  • Intellectual (Down syndrome)

(List provided by Pratik Patel. Used with permission.)

Your writing can help address many of these issues. (Glenda addresses many other issues in different blog posts on this site.)

Here’s the best part: making your writing more accessible for those with disabilities also makes it easier for everyone else to read.

Here are my basic rules for writing for everyone:

  • Structure. Documents need structure, and headings introduce each section. Use heading tags for your headings—don’t just format the text to look like a heading. Screen readers can identify all headings in a document, much like a sighted person can skim them.
  • Active voice, present tense, first (“I”) or second (“you”) person. Talk to your visitors as if they were sitting right next to you. (In a way, they are.) When you do, everyone will find it easier to understand what you’re saying.
  • Short sentences. Try to keep your sentences to 20 words or fewer. People with various cognitive issues can get lost in long sentences. (So can people without cognitive issues, especially when they are tired.)
  • Short paragraphs. Try to keep your paragraphs to two or three sentences. Really long paragraphs are just dense text, which is hard to read.
  • Lists. If you have a series of items, don’t clump them all together in a paragraph. Lists make information easier to read and understand. If the items must be followed in sequence, use numbers. If the items can be followed in any order, use bullets.
  • Vocabulary. Many people with large vocabularies are (understandably) quite proud of themselves. But articles are easier to read if the best word is used, not the longest or most complex.

Be careful when it comes to breaking the rules. While the first item (“use headings”) is an absolute requirement, you may need to write longer sentences or paragraphs. Or sometimes a long word *is* the best word. The goal is to make your writing as easy to understand as possible.

Everyone will benefit.

About Char James-Tanny: Char is president of JTF Associates, Inc. in Lynn, MA (just north of Boston). She has been a technical communicator for almost 30 years, creating both printed and online documentation, online Help files, websites, and more. Char speaks frequently around the world on a variety of topics, mostly related to user assistance. Char can be found on Twitter and Facebook (as CharJTF).

3 Responses to Writing for Everyone
  1. Glynis Jolly
    July 17, 2011 | 3:53 pm

    I do all of those things when I write my posts. I sometimes have trouble with the vocabulary just because I don’t want to use the same word too many times.

  2. Barbara, OT and PT
    July 20, 2011 | 4:07 pm

    Good reminders for me. Thanks, Glenda!

  3. Lori Emmons
    February 11, 2012 | 11:00 pm

    I’m happy I found your blog tonight!
    I only started mine about 3 months ago. Your post about making it accessible was very useful, thanks! I’ll probably have to keep my images opening in a new window though.

    I use an adaptive keyboard that has the mouse functions in it. It only allows 1 key to be pressed at a time.

    If you have not heard of Intellikeys keyboard you may want to check it out!

    You are quite an inspiration! Thanks for being YOU!

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