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Writing to be Read

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Dedicated to Gwen Shepherd

Training Handout

How do you write handouts for meetings?

Begin with the observation that most people, perhaps all, do not like to read, especially when it takes work to do so. This is most often when the topic is new or unfamiliar. Your first task as a writer is to make it easy to read.


At first we might think this requires just writing shorter documents. Right.

We know people are more likely to read them when they are short than when they are long. A single page is best for a handout at a meeting when you want to brief the participants (or participant; it could be your supervisor or a visiting dignitary) about some issue.

To keep it short, do not make it too concentrated. Too much information will be pressed into short spaces. That is hard to read. Do not let the document read as if it would be understood only by people who are totally familiar with the content. You want to reach people other than those who already know the content. No need to “preach to the choir.”

Avoid partial sentences; avoid lists; avoid notes. Always use full sentences, and introduce each topic as if the reader never heard of it before. Better to fill a page and a half instead of a single page, and lay out the ideas in ways that will attract the reader rather than frighten the reader with a short but too concentrated document.

A single page document is a good goal, but not at the expense of being too concentrated.


Do not use colour to highlight parts of it. Unfortunately, that makes it look even more concentrated, and therefore more formidable.

Using various colours also cheapens the look, like a political or religious tract or a commercial advertisement. Stay with one colour, preferably black. Formatting colours can be used, as the title, for example. This is different from colouring selected segments of the text. Similarly, avoid underlining segments, or using italics or upper case letters to highlight some segments of the text.

Keep it all in one colour of text. This will save the reader from trying to second guess your coding and intention. That is a waste of time and hard work; it wards off the reader.

Beginning Your Document:

A document that is going to be read, must start with a "grabber." A boring beginning is guaranteed to ensure the reader will not continue reading. It should start with an outrageous statement, or a fascinating question. Or it could be something that the reader will skim, and then whose interest will be piqued. In the right context, a joke can be used, if it is appropriate.

In our field, a problem in the community, and a community approach to solving the problem(s), is a source of plenty of available grabber topics.

Perhaps you can start with an amazing bit of statistics: eg how many people in the area are ill or dying, compared to other ones? How many young people know exactly how to prevent getting AIDS yet go out and practice unsafe sex?

Grab the interest of the reader. Get her or him interested in reading more.


Once you get the attention of the reader, it is important to keep it. A very good way is to have an argument. This is not a quarrel. It is a set of statements that link to each other and that lead the reader from one point to another.

Keep your sentences simple, short, standard, complete and using the active voice. Avoid notes and point forms in non sentences.

I prefer also using short paragraphs, and putting many subtitles in a document, indicating a new topic each time. Without talking down to the reader, make it easy for the reader to see your layout and design, as well as the content.

The End of the Document:

All the topics you include should lead to a conclusion. The conclusion should conclude.

Make the reader happy that s/he has read the document; and feels completed, satisfied, sure. Remember that when you hand it out, the attention of the participants will be drawn away from you as speaker. Either give them time to read the document without trying to discuss another topic, or paraphrase the document verbally to accompany their reading.


An unread document is a useless document.

If you want to write an handout or briefing, write it in a manner that will make it easy and interesting for people to read it. Keep it short, but not concentrated. Avoid using colour, underlining, italics or upper case letters here and there in the text. Give it an interesting structure that begins with a grabber, develops an argument and leads to a conclusion.

A read document furthers your cause.


© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
Web Design by Lourdes Sada
Last update: 2012.07.21

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