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The 4 questions to ask before you write anything: ROAM

Effective writing creates a change in the reader. Whether you’re writing an email, a blog post, or a strategy document, four elements determine your success: Reader, Objective, Action, and iMpression. I use the (slightly skewed) acronym ROAM to keep all four in mind as I write.

Readers: Who is the audience?

Before writing anything, visualize your readers. When you write “you,” who are you thinking of? Different audiences require different tone and different content. For example, if you write upward (to your boss, to a professor), you’ll typically write more briefly, while if you write downward (to your staff, to high school students) you can include more detail. A blog post for cattle ranchers will read far differently from a blog post for interactive marketers. If you don’t know your readers, how can you write anything?

Objective: What are you trying to do?

Even if you’re sure who you’re writing for, why bother? Your objective is the change you wish to create in the readers. Do you want them to feel favorably about a political party? To learn the steps to change an oil filter? To fund your project? To feel joy? Each element of your writing should guide the reader toward the objective. Cut anything that doesn’t get them closer to that objective.  If you don’t know your objective, how will you know what to include?

Action: What do you want the readers to do?

Once your reader is done, what will she do next? Objective and action are related, but not identical. The objective describes the change in the reader, while the action is what the reader actually does: voting for the candidate, changing the oil filter, budgeting for the project, sharing the joyful writing with others. Compared to objectives, actions are easier to spot and to measure. If you don’t know the action you seek, how will you know if you succeeded?

iMpression: What will they think of you?

Objectives and actions may be fleeting, but impressions last. The impression is the meta-message; it’s what the writing says about you, and it determines the future of your relationship with the reader.  Do you want your readers to think of you as smart? Trustworthy? Witty? If you don’t know the impression you hope to create, how will you know what style to write in?

Let’s look at an example: a HubSpot blog post by Jami Oetting called “A Simple Guide to Choosing the Right Chart for Your Data.” Here’s the ROAM analysis:

Readers: Marketers that create or use graphics built from data.

Objective: Educate marketers about 13 types of data charts and when to use them.

Action: Get readers to include appropriate data charts in their blog posts, presentations, or reports.

iMpression: Reinforce the idea that HubSpot is a valuable, helpful resource for marketers.

Anyone who has attended a Passover Seder knows that the evening is not complete without the recitation of the Four Questions about why Passover is special. Similarly, your writing is not complete without answers to the four questions in ROAM. Ask yourself these questions up front, and your writing will end up much better.


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  1. Great work.

    I would add S(ummary) at the end, in a bullet point style and/or call to action (what do you want the reader to do, if appropriate. Dale Carnegie opened my eyes to this and I always appreciate (and respect) the confidence of those who include this extra step.

  2. Josh – these are excellent. Every writer should ask him/herself, “What’s the point?” before composing a single word (or headline). One thing I like to add is an illustration or metaphor – something that can be used as a bridge to understanding, or as a long-term memory hook (or both). That’s how I decided to use the idea of a zipper in this recent post: http://www.stevewoodruff.com/a-scary-moment-in-terminal-a/ – I want people to remember the message by attaching it, like Velcro, to some idea or action already lodged in the reader’s awareness.