I will never forget the phone call I received one Friday two years ago. It was early in the afternoon, and just by the caller’s tone I could tell he was in a hurry. He immediately told me the reason: He had a 10,000-word document he needed to have edited by that evening because he needed to deliver it in person to the U.S. Attorney General in Washington D.C. first thing Monday morning. He was presently in Arizona and running short on time because the drive would take two days, and he did not want to miss the opportunity. For reasons I do not remember, I agreed that we would take the project. It was only then that I saw the document—a calico text of varying font sizes and types.
What I Remember About the Document
Two years and 1,000s of documents later, surprisingly—or perhaps not surprisingly—I still remember that document, though likely not for the reasons the client had intended. I believe it was some sort of protest or manifesto, but I am far from sure about that and am even less sure about the particular message he wanted to communicate.
What I do remember without any doubt was the font ranging in size from 9 pt to 48 pt and the mix of red, blue and green colors used for it, without—at least from what I could see—any pattern or reason. None of the text was in black font, and individual words, phrases and headings were different sizes and colors from their surrounding text.
I do not remember any of what I actually read.
The Author’s Key Errors
In composing his document, the author made two key errors that are foundational in the success of any writing. The first error he made was in not knowing his audience. The second error was in placing a priority in form over content.
Knowing Your Audience
The first question you should ask with any writing is who your audience is. Only then can you have a clear idea, for example, of the tone and style to use. How educated is your audience? What age are they? What is their gender? What is their culture?
In the case of this client, the writer had the goal of delivering his document to the U.S. Attorney General on the steps of the Capitol. He believed the Attorney General would immediately read it and respond. Without thinking this through, he wrote a 10,000-word document.
Get the Content Right
With the audience clear in your mind, the next step is to get the actual content right. If you are writing to non-native English speakers, for example, avoid idiomatic or nuanced expressions. If you are driving across the country to deliver your document in person to someone you expect will open and read it in that moment, make your message succinct, specific and direct.
Another example is one I came across in a sales letter recently, in which I read “immerse ourselves in your market.” I immediately thought of plunging into water, going to learn Spanish in a pueblito in rural Ecuador, or wearing camouflage as I tracked an animal through a forest. None of these, I found out, were what the writer had intended.
Match the Form to Your Content
Content should only be enhanced by form, not replaced by it. If you want your document to be taken seriously, then you will want to take the form seriously and make sure it matches the content. Bold, colorful fonts are great for automotive advertisements but generally not appropriate for RFQs. Short, one- to three-sentence paragraphs are best for email correspondence.
The most remarkable example of form that I have come across is Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch. In it, Márquez narrates the life of a fictional dictator with absolute control over his country. Márquez does this with sentences that seemingly never end, spanning up to 40 pages, demanding his audience to keep reading beyond their need to take a break. The effect is stunning. Through his use of form, Márquez is able to make his readers feel exactly what the people in his book would feel under control of the dictator. He does not use colorful font, nor does his font size vary.
Where Professional Editing Can Help
Even experienced writers need assistance with knowing whether their intended message comes across to their audience. They do not have the advantage of professional editors to be able to look at their writing objectively. Professional editors like the ones we have at DLA Editors & Proofers can see exactly where your message is faltering, and what changes can be made to both form and content to deliver it more effectively.