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What “People” Can Teach “WSJ” and You

On Friday at a dental appointment, I had a chance to read People magazine, something I do only when at the dentist or standing in a supermarket line. The cover featured Ellen DeGeneres, and I wanted to read her interview. Where would I find it?

I flipped past two pages of ads, and the information I needed stood out boldly: Ellen, page 52. Easy!People magazine

An hour later, home from the dentist with a rubbery mouth, I glanced at the title of a Wall Street Journal article online: “Justice Stevens: The Five Extra Words That Can Fix the Second Amendment.” Interesting! What are those five words?

[Correction: I realized after publishing this post that I was reading The Washington Post–not The Wall Street Journal. My apologies to WSJ.]

Unlike the People approach, former Justice Stevens’s Wall Street Journal article did not quickly supply the information I sought. After scanning 1617 words of a 1785-word article, I finally found the five words: “when serving in the Militia.” (Justice Stevens’s revised Second Amendment would read, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”)

Granted, The Wall Street Journal is not People, and an article about the U.S. Constitution has a different weight from an interview with Ellen. Yet People helped me find what I wanted almost instantly, and the Stevens article made me strain to find the information.

What you can take from People to apply to your business writing is this: Readers want information fast. On the job, they may not have time to slog through lots of content. Recognize what they will look for and point them toward it:

  • Use bolding and highlighting at the left margin, where readers are scanning.
  • Include brief descriptive headings like People’s “On the Cover.”
  • Write in short chunks of text.
  • Insert white space between the chunks.
  • Use bullets for lists or similar pieces of information.

How do you help readers find information quickly–whether they are staring at their laptops, scanning their phones, or standing in line at the supermarket? Please share your ideas.


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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.

4 comments on “What “People” Can Teach “WSJ” and You”

  • I had nearly the same experience with that same article — I had seen the headline on my Facebook news feed on my phone and tried to find the article later when I was on my iPad (I prefer to read articles on the larger screen when I can.) I had the same trouble you did in finding that information!

  • Well said!

    Lynn, how did you feel when this occurred? Did you feel frustrated, or as though your time had been wasted? I ask because, as a reader, I feel a little betrayed when that happens to me. It’s essentially false advertising — the headline offers a keen, quick insight that the article fails to deliver in a keen, quick way.

    In academics, this kind of writing that builds up to a conclusion is valued, but in the academic world, people read the writer’s paper or article because it’s their job to do so. It’s writer-centered. In the mainstream world, the reader is (usually) paying to read the article, making it the writer/editor’s job to deliver the promised insights in a manner that’s easily comprehensible. When this sort of writing works, it’s reader-centered.

    Sorry to rant! Love your blog, as always.

  • Amy, thank you for your interesting view of the situation. I like your discussion of writer-centered and reader-centered writing.

    Yes, I did feel frustrated. The title enticed me, and the work of reading to get my reward dragged on.


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