The Write Stuff: Don’t stall the reader

December 14, 2016

rdgreen-December 14, 2016

"Stalling" the reader is bad. Skip over the next heading to learn what this is all about.

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  • References and other resources: "Elements of Style", Strunk & White; "On Writing", Steven King; "Techniques for Technical Communicators", Barnum & Carliner.
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  • Related material: See "Ron's Writing & Communicating Tips", numbers 1 thru 12.

What's this all about?
When someone picks up material based on its title, they expect it to address the topic as soon as possible. Anything that stands between the title and the part that speaks to it has the effect of "stalling" the reader. (If you read the section before this, you just experienced that effect.)


(Source: Grey Flannel Graphics)

Stalling the reader is bad for several reasons. First, it inflates the material unnecessarily, making it appear longer -- and more daunting -- than it really is. Second, it dilutes the reader's focus, potentially taking them off-topic and reducing their momentum. Worse still, it forces the reader to determine for themselves where the piece actually begins, thereby making the material feel disorganized. (Actually, stalling the reader is a sign of poor organization.)

Click Here to see an example manual that adheres to the "Don’t stall the reader" concept. Have you ever read a manual that left you feeling "stalled"? How important is this "Don’t stall the reader" concept to you? And how would you organize such a manual?

There are many well-intentioned reasons for stalling the reader (see Important information above) but they are all doomed to fail. Writers often insert material to "force" that portion to be read first, but this is quickly circumvented. (Do you know anyone who skips to the end of the book to see what happens? I thought so.)

Ultimately, you can't force the reader to do anything. In particular, readers of technical material are largely task-driven and are looking to gain specific information. These are people who are on a mission, and the best you can do is help them. So, get to the point as quickly as you can; organize your material to speed them on their way; and don't stall the reader!

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