Key to clearer writing: Know the big picture before you start

Key to clearer writing: Know the big picture before you start

Know the big picture before you start writing, with image of a jumbled stack of blocks

Understanding the big picture—before you start writing—will help you write better. When you know for whom and what the document is for, you can put the right pieces in the right place.

Clear writing isn’t just about the part where you sit down and type. It starts before. Having some big-picture things clear in your mind first will help you write better.

So what are these “big-picture” things?

(I use examples from international development, but I’ll also say a few words at the end how these tips are relevant to academics too.)

▶ Why are you writing this? For what purpose?

You need to know why you are writing this document. Whom is it for and what are you trying to get them to think or do?

Why are you writing? Who are you writing for (target audience)? What do you want them to do or think? What information do you need to include?
(An aside: I realize the correct grammatical form is “‘whom’ are you writing for?”—but there is a debate about “who” being acceptable in informal settings—which fit the talk I was giving with this slide—and “whom” being overly stuffy. This even takes up a few columns in Garner’s Modern English Usage [2016 edition, which is admittedly no longer the latest!].)

Before you start writing, be clear about:

  1. Whom are you writing for? (Who’s your target audience?)
  2. What do you want them to do/think as a result of reading your document?
  3. What information do you need to include? (Consider what your audience likely knows, what they are unlikely to know, and what they might be looking for.)

As with most things, write down the answers to these questions. It will help you get better clarity.

Even when you are preparing inputs to a larger document—a common request in international development organizations—take a moment to check that you understand the big picture. That will help you decide what pieces you need to put in and where.

▶ What is your main message?

This might seem obvious, but do you know what you are trying to say?

I talk about this in more detail in another post. So for here, I’ll just say: Know what your main message is.

▶ What’s the logic/story of the piece?

Another big-picture thing to remember is that every type of document has its own logic or flow—or story, if you prefer.

Think about this as taking your reader on a ride, with you in the driver’s seat. You have to know where you’re starting from, what your readers should see on the way, and where they will end up.

What journey do you want to take your reader on? One photo shows a paved, fairly straight road. The other, a winding, switch-back path going up a steep mountainside.

What kind of journey, what kind of road, are you going to take? Which is easier to follow: a clear, paved, straight road or a wildly complex one? (Hint: You might want to aim for the easier road if you’re trying to convey information.)

Take these examples:

  • A letter to a donor asking for a project extension
  • A brochure about a training course
  • A web article on some research findings

Each one will have its own logic/flow/story that will depend on the target audience and what you want the reader to think and do after reading the document.

Type of writing Who is the target audience? What do you want the reader to do/think, etc.?
Letter to donor asking for an extension to the project deadline Government officials
  1. Remember what the project was about
  2. Understand what the unexpected circumstance was
  3. Understand the proposed revision; think that it’s a reasonable and good proposal
  4. Approve the request
A brochure about a training course Potential participants (e.g., young women entrepreneurs in South Sudan)
  1. Recognize that the brochure is for them
  2. Understand “what’s in it for them” — what they’ll get from participating
  3. Understand the details of the course (i.e., dates, location, cost, etc.)
  4. Know how to apply
  5. Apply!
A web article sharing findings of research
  • “General population” — people who are interested in the subject, possibly those who were studied in the research (or people from similar situations)
  • Policymakers
  • Donors
  • Other researchers, academics, practitioners
  1. Understand what the issue is about and why it’s important
  2. Get an idea of the research details (who, where, when, why, how)
  3. Learn the “so what” of the research, the key takeaway
  4. Make use of the findings — something that leads to further action & outcomes
  5. Know how to find more information about the issue, the research, etc.

When you look at the last column, you can see it already outlines your logic/storyline and the information you will need to include.

Added 2022-07-06: If you’re lucky, you may be able to follow a common structure (template) to organize your information.

▶ How does this apply to journal articles?

So say you’re a researcher and you’re preparing your journal submission. How are these tips relevant to you?

You still need to know why you are writing your article.

Type of writingWho is the target audience?What do you want the reader to do/think, etc.?
Journal article
  • Professionals/academics in your field
  • Journal editor
  1. Understand the context/issue
  2. Understand what you have done and found
  3. Agree that your results are significant/useful, etc.
  4. Accept your article for publication, cite your article, etc.

You have to make sure you are putting in the pieces that will help your colleagues understand and appreciate what you’ve studied and its significance. And you will (I hope) write using plain language 😉

In the case of journal articles, the story/logic is already set: you’ll probably follow the introduction – methodology – results – discussion (IMRaD) format. 1

Even if that structure is already defined for you, you will be able to write better if you understand what each section is for and how it contributes to your overall story.

No need to take just my word for it. For more on how to focus each section in the IMRaD format, see Wiley’s summary of Richard Threlfeld’s tips on ChemistryViews.

Image of colorful wooden blocks orderly stacked on top of each other

No matter what kind of document you’re writing, having a solid understanding of who and what that document is for before you start will help you figure out what pieces to include and where to put them.

This was part of the 1-hour virtual workshop for UNITAR Hiroshima Office staff that I gave in November 2020.

If you would like to discuss whether we might be a good fit for your academic writing project, please send me details via the contact form or email me at

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  1. Apparently, that became THE format to use for academic writing in the 1980s.


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