How to beat the 15-second rule when writing for professional purposes

Did you know that it takes about 15 seconds to determine whether your work gets read at all? YES, 15 seconds. In these 15 seconds, readers determine what the document in front of them is about and whether the document is relevant to them. So, your document should be interesting enough for an audience to bother reading it in the first place. Your audience should be able to assess if the topic at hand address is relevant to them and the text should thus include a clear key message using an appropriate tone of voice. As writing can be time-consuming, you may want to take on an approach that is efficient and results in a document with which you can make a good impression by demonstrating competence, without having to rewrite your work afterwards because you may have received comments about the quality of your work. The way to do this more efficiently is by planning your documents first, which does not have to take very long – by the way. This post explains how to go about starting to compose such documents.

Do you always start writing immediately without considering how to start and what to focus on? Do you feel like you can’t see what you are doing once you have drafted a document? Not sure if you have used the right words? So do many, but starting to write without having some pre-work is a strategy that costs more time down the line, not less. To make sure that your document gets read by your intended audience and thus to beat this 15-second rule, you need to plan your writing before you start writing your first draft.

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You may have heard this before but bear with me.

Léonieke S. Ariaans, MA who is the founder of LSA LINGUA

How NOT to do it

You’re at your desk or working from home and you open a document. You start typing away while glancing at some documents on your PC. You are not paying very much attention to what you are actually writing for everything is kind of clearly delineated in your mind. The only thing on your mind right now is to get it on paper and to be done with it as soon as possible. You’re also convinced that another person will find your way of doing things clear, too. In other words, you are convinced that another person will immediately understand what you have written and should just follow your recommendations or whatever you may want them to do, and that’s that. You have finished writing your document, have spell-checked everything and are about to send it off.

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Not so fast and here’s why.

You work may not be completely understood as another person, like your co-worker, might not have been to all the meetings you’ve been to, might not have read all the other reports or documents you have read, and thus may not know what you know. The way your thoughts segway into each other may also not be natural to someone else. So, including the right amount of information matters a lot. This is why planning your document should really be the first step in your writing process to keep track of what you are doing, to keep things on point, and to help you edit your work more effectively once you are done.

Planning your writing really helps in preventing issues revolving around misunderstanding and communicative breakdown. What is more, the communicative effects of that may very well be that your writing is possibly unstructured, unclear, and just does not cover all the aspects it should cover, resulting in vague language use, ununified and underdeveloped paragraphs, an unclear aim and conclusions, your reader may find gaps in your reasoning, which may cause them to doubt what you have concluded, and so on. Remember that you only have one chance to get it right in writing – your audience probably won’t read it again, unless the document is really important, but even then will they probably only partially re-read your work. Now that you are more informed about and aware of the possible issues that may occur when writing professional documents, it might be time to change that and here is how to go about it.

How to go about planning your document:

First, determine:

  • Why you are writing this document. So, what is the aim?
  • Why reading your document will help your readers in doing their job. So, why should they bother reading it?

Next, determine:

  • Which background information they – at the very least – need to be able to understand what you are writing about.
  • Which part of the discussion they have missed and what has been decided that you may need to fill them in on.
  • What the main ideas are that you want to convey through your writing.
  • If you have placed them in the right, logical order.

Finally, determine:

  • What you want your readers to do after having read your document.
  • If your readers only decide to read your conclusions, determine what they should at least know after having read your document.

Next steps

See what I did here? Answering these indirect questions in each section of the report, (i.e. introduction, body and conclusion), will help structure your document and increases the ease with which your reader can process the content of your professional document better. After having answered these indirect questions, you can start writing your first draft. Just write a clear introduction in which you answer these first questions by restating the questions using statements first, and outline what the purpose of the document is. Then, write the body text in which you answer the questions under ‘next’ making sure that you only cover one topic per paragraph to keep things clear. Finally, make sure to end strong and let the reader know what you expect him or her to do now. Now you’re done and ready to spell-check, check tone, if you have used good headings, grammar and whatnot. By structuring your writing in this way, chances of beating the 15-second rule are much greater. Give it a shot and let me know how it panned out.

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Please note that the 15-second rule was introduced by Nick Brieger in 2011 and even though that has been a while ago, it is still very useful to adhere to when composing documents.

This post was written by Léonieke. S. Ariaans, MA who is the founder of LSA LINGUA. Learn more about here. Copyright LSA LINGUA 2020.

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