Many messages fail to deliver what the reader needs because the writer failed to ask important questions before writing.

Writers frequently realize that key details are missing. They notice it before they have reached the end, they realize it during the editing phase, or they know it when the reader sends back a response asking for clarification or further explanation because the original message indecipherable.

It happens because people have an email mindset since the advent of email in 1994: they sit down and start typing and figure it out as they go. They feverishly tap away on the keyboard until they have sprayed all their information on the screen, then find the period and hit send. The failure to ask important questions early means people frequently waste significant amounts of time rewriting the message later to include the information.

Here are a few questions to ask before writing many messages: email, formal memos, policies, reports, customer service letters. And there might be additional questions you will want to add to the list, depending on the communication you are writing.

  • What is the one thing the reader needs to know from this message? What is the one point you want the reader to take away and remember?
  • What will the reader be looking for? Think from the reader’s perspective. What questions will he or she have?
  • What do you want the reader to do?
  • Does the reader have sufficient background and context to understand the message?
  • How much does the reader truly need to know to understand my main point? When we have expertise in a topic, we are enthusiastic about it, and we often want to impress the reader with how much we know. But we annoy the reader, who only needs one-fifth of the details you provided what you wrote.
  • Who else is likely to read this? If someone needs to make a decision, that person often is someone other than your immediate reader. There might be one name in your “To” box, but maybe someone else has the authority to decide or to influence the decision. In that case, have you included enough information for that person?

We should ask these questions in the prewriting phase, when we organize our ideas. And our answers to these questions will help determine what ideas we will include in the message. Many people are in too much of a hurry to think about it first, but a little time invested up front could save a lot of time making changes later.