Here is some folk wisdom for writers and speakers: First I tells ‘em what I,m going to tell ‘ em, then I tells ‘em, then I tells ‘em what I’ve tellt ‘em.

For much everyday writing, that serves as an excellent motto. In particular, it harks back to the golden rule: Remember the reader. Every time the poor reader opens a letter or report written by you, he feels as though he is entering a strange town for the first time, with no idea how to find his way about. What he needs is some bold signposts.

Common Types of Signpost

Here are some typical forms of signpost for use in everyday writing. They help to keep the reader continually conscious of his whereabouts.

The heading. This is the basic welcome to the reader. He knows at once, very roughly, where he is.

In a business letter, the heading is less conspicuous than in a report: it comes after the salutation (preferably not prefaced by the stilted word re):

Dear Mrs Braithwaite,

Your claim for a refund on

Your Zadok pressure cooker

Thank you for your letter of 19 October 1990, in which you . . .

Reference or identification. This might take the form of an account number (if dealing with a bank), for example, or a date (of a letter to which you are now replying), or a commission number: Market Research report no. 167.

Table of contents. In a longish report, research paper, academic thesis, or the like, a table of contents provides the reader with a panoramic survey. His reading should be faster, better focused, and more efficient now, as a result of knowing what lies ahead.

Subheadings and sub-subheadings. Like street names, these serve as constant reminders to the reader of his whereabouts. This very page (with its three distinct levels of heading) illustrates the point.

Advance warnings. These are the small ‘traffic signs’ within the running text – letting the reader know in good time what he is about to encounter. Suppose you are listing three reasons in favour of a particular course of action. Preface them, as a help to the reader, with the simple traffic sign: ‘There are three reasons for this suggested course of action.’ If you have to digress from your main line of argument, let the reader know – ‘A brief digression here, to explain the background to the scheme’ – or else he will think he is still on the main road, only to realise suddenly that he is lost.

Milestones. These small cues complement the advance warnings within the text. They inform the reader how far he has progressed along a certain road or line of thought. Suppose that each of the three reasons that you have to list is very long and detailed. You might intersperse reminders every so often just to reassure the reader of his bearing: ‘That is the primary reason for the course of action I propose. A second reason is as follows’ or ‘The last of the three reasons is this . . .’ Similarly, when you come to the end of a digression, inform the reader so that he knows his whereabouts again: ‘So much for the background to the scheme. To return now to the details of its budget and schedule . . .’

Summaries. In lengthy documents, don’t limit yourself to a single summary at the very end. Pause to take stock – to summarise or repeat – whenever the weight of information risks overloading the reader’s powers of concentration or memory.

One of the most important places for a full summary is the very beginning of the document – an ‘executive summary’ or ‘abstract’, it is sometimes called.

Lazy or hurried readers, if they read nothing else, can at least get the gist of your report in that way.

Another old rule of friendly report-writing: Don’t wait till the conclusion before stating your conclusions.

You can state them – or at least hint at them – very near the start.

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