Deciding a plan of contents

What things are the readers looking for in your publication?

Once you have defined the readers (the 'target audience'), you should be able to make a list of the things they are wanting to find in your publication.

Use that list when drawing up the contents of the publication. You may not have all the articles to suit the readers' needs but at least you will be structuring things according to their agenda, not your own.

Remember that the readers' minds are focussed on their job. They don't really want to know about your subject; they want to know how your publication can help them. They want to find the information they need easily.

Stop being logical

Put yourself in the readers' place. Ask: why should I read this?

It's not good enough just to write about your subjects in the order which is logical to you. You know the subject, the readers do not. The readers' logic is the logic of learning. The presentation that makes sense to you may simply overwhelm the reader.

A good way to match with the readers' learning curve is to layer the information. Start by creating motivation. Write interestingly and give an overall word picture or some basic facts. Then discuss your subject in a way that is relevant to the readers. Complicated points can be introduced in stages.

Highly detailed information is often best given at the back of your publication, in reference chapters, where it won't be an obstacle to the reader.

One of the best ways to reward readers is with the spark of understanding. If you make points that are clear, simple and illuminating you give readers the encouragement to continue.


Readers don't like to be swamped by information. Consider how you can break down your publication or article into easily digestible chunks of information. Why is "Column 8" one of the most read newspaper columns in Sydney? It has to do with attention span.

Attention spans depend on the reader's stress level, available time, and business. What is a good article length for an intellectual journal will be completely unsuitable for a business newsletter or practical handbook. Consider how much time your readers have for your publication, then tailor the article or section sizes to suit. Often a range of sizes is appropriate.

Remember that your readership will usually decline in proportion to the length of your articles. People just don't like to read long pieces unless they are especially interesting.

If you are writing a manual or handbook for people in a hurry it's a good idea to break long sections into lots of small modules, preferably with illustrations and plenty of graphic signposts to help people find what they need quickly.


  • people are all slow learners and people in a hurry are worse. Try to make your publication match the learning curve of your readers.
  • people read what they're interested in or what might be useful in their work. Your job is to understand the reader and highlight the things they will be especially interested in.

Be interesting - be visual

"People don't read a magazine at first. They look at it." -Roger Black (Designer).

Think of your book as giving an illuminating performance for the reader. Be a showperson. People don't read things that are boring.

Clarity, simplicity and a sense of humour are important in almost all publications. Many editors and administrators are frightened of humour or idiosyncrasy in informative publications. But think - what publications have you most enjoyed reading?

Cartoons and photos are the best ways to add interest to your publication.

Even purely frivolous illustrations like these can be useful to set a tone and encourage readers to read on.


Photos are another great way to add interest to your publication. If there is one rule for the best use of photos it is 'the bigger the better".

Keep the following hints in mind

  • Technically, photos should be of good contrast
  • The subject should be strong, inherently interesting and fill the photograph
  • People, emotion and action are the best subjects. Look for photos which are stories in their own right.
  • Crop carefully, to direct the reader's attention.
  • Always use captions. Don"t just describe what is obvious. Use captions to enlarge on the content, draw attention to the article, to tease, to set moods, to ask questions. Be creative - address the audience. Readers expect captions. After headings, they are the most read parts of a publication. Skimming readers use captions to tell whether an article is worth reading.

PS. set captions 'ragged' (left justified) and in a distinct type eg. italic or smaller. size.

Illustrations & cartoons

These are the very best way to make your publication approachable and interesting. No matter how serious your publication is, cartoons are still a great way to make it more interesting. The essence of a good cartoon is irreverence and 'risk'. Cartoons need not follow the editorial line.

2 other ways to create visual interest

Breakouts or 'pull-quotes'


Small articles or sections can be boxed for interest or emphasis, often with a light screen background. Use these to break up a page but not another article (ie. avoid interrupting the flow of reading).

Remember that captions, pull-quotes and breakouts need thought. They are usually the first parts of a page that are read. Skimming readers use them to judge whether to read more deeply on that page.

© Les Robinson and Sean Kidney