Writing for the Reader: Lessons Learned from the Back of a Cereal Box
Writers have something to say; editors like me make sure the words on the page (or, in this case, on the cereal box) convey the writer’s intended meaning.
I’ve been reading the backs of cereal boxes since I was a kid. One morning not too long ago, my breakfast ritual was turned upside down by, of all things, a convoluted blurb on the back of my cereal box. Here’s how it reads:
Essentially Balanced! Today’s busy lifestyle is full of complicated elements. It takes expert skill to balance all of it successfully—work, home, play and everything that goes with and between them.
A balanced diet including Essential M® is one less thing you have to worry about—leaving you more room to focus on all of the other things important to being . . . you.
Okay, let’s start by “uncomplicating” things. Blurbs on cereal boxes should be short, simple, and snappy. This one is none of the above. Why does this bother me? The main reason is that it violates the most basic rule of writing, which is to write for your target audience.
The target reader for cereal box copy is likely in a fog. Trying to read anything before 6:00 am is a challenge in itself, but must we deal with “complicated elements,” “with and between,” two em-dashes and an ellipsis? All in a few sentences? And the sun isn’t even up yet? No, the reader was not the top priority here.
One of my first college writing courses was taught by the inimitable Dr. Ray Adler, aka the “King of Concision.” He began his class with three simple words (and, yes, I realize I’m dating myself): “Bayer Works Wonders.” Vintage ad copy? Maybe, but there’s a valuable lesson to be learned here. Those three short words speak volumes to someone who’s in pain. Whether you’re a writer of fiction or nonfiction, of long works or short, of self-published e-books or peer-reviewed articles, your number one priority should be your reader.
Whenever I get bogged down in wordy copy, I think of Dr. Adler and his mantra. I’ll bet my Swarovski crystalline copper ballpoint pen he’d approve of a clean and simple alternative to the first three sentences of that cereal box copy—something like “Life’s a Balancing Act.” It’s short, it’s snappy, and it provides a nice segue into a line about how “essential” a balanced diet is to a healthy lifestyle.
What’s the moral of this story? Always put your reader first. Oh, and don’t expect tired people to read anything twice.