Todd Rogers.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

You’re writing it wrong

6 min read

Todd Rogers on connecting with people who don’t have time to read

Have you ever taken the time to craft a detailed email to a colleague, or perhaps a text message to a friend, only to have them shoot back a one-line response that makes it clear they didn’t read past the first sentence? Welcome to reality. We all struggle to manage our time in an information-saturated world, and a 1,000-word message can feel like a heavy lift. But if that’s the case, how do we get through to each other?

Looking for answers, the Gazette spoke with Todd Rogers, a behavioral scientist and professor of public policy at the Kennedy School, about his new book, “Writing for Busy Readers: Communicate More Effectively in the Real World,” co-written with Jessica Lasky-Fink, research director at The People Lab. The interview has been edited (of course!) for clarity and length.


Todd Rogers

Gazette: What inspired “Writing for Busy Readers”?

Rogers: Jessica and I have been collaborating on field experiments for around a decade, mostly about how school districts communicate with busy families and campaigns communicate with busy voters. During the pandemic, we advised state, local, and other leaders on how to communicate with busy constituents and stakeholders. As that work evolved, we realized that there is a very discrete set of principles that makes our writing much easier for busy people to read and respond to.

Gazette: Who is this book aimed at?

Rogers: Everyone who writes — and everyone writes these days. We want editing for ease of reading to be part of the standard writing process. At every level, whether in the context of a high school English class or a professional communications team, writers should ask themselves “How do I make it easier for readers?” Because readers reward writing that is easy to read with their attention. Writing in this way helps writers achieve their goal, which is to have their writing be read and understood, and readers achieve their goal, which is to move on quickly to the next item on their list.

Gazette: You make a distinction in the book between “effective writing” and “beautiful writing.” What do you mean by effective writing?

Rogers: Effective writing — whether it’s an email, a text message, a report, or a proposal—is practical writing with the goal of getting the reader to understand and potentially respond. I think the guiding insight for the whole book is that our readers are not reading what we write carefully. And the vast majority of the time, they don’t care as much as we do about what we write. The challenge is, How do we write so it’s easy for skimmers?

“Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ was written at a fourth-grade reading level and won a Pulitzer Prize. We can convey complexity and nuance without writing in a way that is unhelpfully complex and distractingly nuanced.”

Gazette: You and Jessica discuss dozens of randomized experiments that support six specific strategies for simplifying writing to make it easier for readers. Could you summarize a few of those tips?

Rogers: First: Less is more. That is, fewer words, fewer ideas, fewer requests. Strunk and White said “omit needless words,” so that’s not radical, and it’s costless. Eliminating somewhat-useful-but-not-necessary ideas is harder. It’s a balance between getting the point across and adding too much — there is no right amount to cut. Finally, the more actions a message asks of readers, the less likely readers are to do any one of them. Here, it’s about prioritizing — knowing that adding an additional request will decrease the likelihood that the high priority one gets done.

Second: Add structure. A good way to do this is to add headings and make sure the first paragraph describes how to navigate the document. Most people aren’t reading linearly; they’re jumping around. Providing structure makes it easy for readers to find what’s interesting to them.

Third: Use enough formatting, but no more. Jessica and I found in surveys that people interpret underline, bold, and highlight as the writer saying to the reader, “this is the most important content.” When writers highlight or bold a section in the middle of a document or an email, it dramatically increases the likelihood that people read that portion, but it decreases the likelihood that they read the rest of the message. Once again, there are tradeoffs.

Gazette: Writers often blame readers for not taking the time to understand their writing, but you suggest that they should instead blame themselves. Why is this shift important?

Rogers: We often think that the challenge for writing is to be complete, comprehensive, clear, and maybe even well-written, per the way we were taught. This puts the burden on readers to make sure they pull out what we want them to pull out. But we don’t control the lived experience of readers. It’d be great if readers had the time, attention, and interest to read our nuanced, long, beautifully written text. But the reality is, that’s not the case. The burden, if we want to achieve our goals as writers, is on us to assume responsibility for writing in a way that accommodates the reality of how readers read.

Gazette: You also say that applying the rules of readability does not mean you’re dumbing down your writing. What’s the difference?

Rogers: Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” was written at a fourth-grade reading level and won a Pulitzer Prize. We can convey complexity and nuance without writing in a way that is unhelpfully complex and distractingly nuanced. It’s easy to make simple things complex. It requires work to make complex things simple, but that’s part of the art of effective writing.

Gazette: If less is more, why write a book, as opposed to say, a pamphlet?

Rogers: Jessica and I joke that we thought the best way to get people to write shorter emails was to write a long book about it. We say that 85% jokingly. The serious part is that a book is a more complete and convincing way of presenting people with the principles of effective writing than just asserting them, because we have space to share the evidence and the ambiguities. The book forced Jessica and me to dive into an incredibly diverse range of literature, from cognitive psychology to vision research to behavioral science to literacy to education, and we wanted to give people the chance to weigh the evidence for themselves.

And we wrote the book so that it would be scannable, to practice what we preach. Not only so that people can get through it quickly, but also to make it easy for readers to find the parts they want to dive into and quickly skim the parts they don’t.