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Write Efficiently for Onscreen Readers

I am ending this year with an example that people in business writing classes found most helpful when it comes to writing for onscreen readers.

In Writing Tune-Up for Peak Performance, a business writing class I teach regularly, we talk about the fact that people do not read what we write, especially on screen. Rather than read, they skip and skim to retrieve information. Retrievers are scanning the left margin of our online messages to find what they seek.

The two brief versions below are about the use of a conference center. Which one does a better job of providing information in the left margin?

Schedule a room 3 ways:
  1. Use the Outlook calendar.
  2. Email Charlotte at
  3. Call Charlotte at 253-780-XXXX.
Coffee: Visit the coffee room in the Conference Center.
Lunch, snacks, and coffee delivery: Call the Ricoh Cafe at 253-723-XXXX to make arrangements.
Here are three ways to schedule a room:
  1. You can use the Outlook calendar.
  2. You can Email Charlotte at
  3. Call Charlotte at 253-780-XXXX.
To find coffee: Visit the coffee room in the Conference Center.
To have lunch, snacks, and coffee delivered: Call the Ricoh Cafe at 253-723-XXXX to make arrangements.
You probably recognized that Version 1 features essential, specific words in the left margin: schedule, email, coffee, and lunch. Version 2 uses general phrases in the left margin: here are, you can, to find, to have.
Tip: Your onscreen readers are scanning the left margin, so use it well. Include the words they are looking for in the all-important left column.
Happy 2023!

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.