5 tips that will improve the clarity of your writing
By Craig Clarke
February 19, 2020
As a copyeditor for technology marketing materials, my primary goal is clarity. I want to make the text as easy to understand as possible. In the first century CE, Roman rhetorician Quintilian wrote that we should go further and have our writing be impossible to misunderstand.
Here are five ways to make sure your reader doesn’t get tripped up by your message.
Think like the reader.
Earlier in my career, I worked for an educational publisher. While proofreading a state assessment, it occurred to me that I could best serve the third-graders taking the test by keeping them in mind. I did my best to make sure the questions and answer options used the vocabulary of an eight-year-old.
This also applies to marketing copy. Your words are meant to be read by your prospect—not you, not your client, and not the awards committee. (Well, sometimes the awards committee.)
Write as if you are the prospect. They may not be familiar with industry terminology. Which brings us to tip number two.
Choose basic words.
To increase the clarity of her own writing, MarketingProfs maven Ann Handley recommends an online tool called the Up-Goer Five Text Editor. Its creator was inspired by a panel of the webcomic xkcd, in which writer and artist Randall Munroe labels the parts of a rocket (the “up-goer”) using only the 1,000 most common words.
This is an extreme example—perhaps more helpful as an illustration of an idea than for real communication—but the concept is sound: Don’t write over your reader’s head.
Once again, think like them and use words they are likely to know. It’s unlikely that the groundlings at the Globe Theatre would have taken to Shakespeare’s Hamlet if his soliloquy began, “Continued existence—conversely, discontinued existence,” instead of, “To be or not to be.”
But using basic words are only part of the equation.
Use simple sentences.
Someone being sold to looks for any reason to stop reading your copy. Don’t let your needlessly complex sentences be the reason. Here’s an example from some technology marketing copy (that I’ve changed slightly to protect the guilty).
The digital economy has been shaped by globalization forces, increased customer expectations, and disruptors from the outside—which drives IT organizations to embrace the cloud and service on-demand.
That sentence has 29 words and a 17th-grade reading level—and that’s the “grabber.”
This overlong sentence comprising esoteric terminology makes me respond in one of two ways. Either I can’t understand what it says, so your information isn’t coming across—or I’m in the industry, so I already know it.
With a parade of jargon, you’ve lost your prime opportunity to hook me.
One way to see where you could improve your sentences is by using the Hemingway App. Paste your text into the editor, and it gives a grade-level readability score. It also highlights adverbs, passive voice, complex phrases, words with simpler options, and hard-to-read sentences.
But remember that these are only suggestions based on the app’s programming. You make the changes if you think they are suitable.
Getting back to the example, what about this instead?
Everything’s gone global. Customers expect only the best. Disruption lurks around every corner. The digital economy is making tech companies scramble just to keep up. They’re adopting cloud and on-demand. Are you?
Isn’t that better?
I’m not saying it’s up there with Dickens or even Ogilvy, but one sentence is now six. And at an 8th-grade level, it’s a lot easier to understand. But it would be even better to…
Get to the point already.
I have a friend who cannot tell a short anecdote. He starts by giving all the information he deems necessary to understand the situation. But he’ll spend so much time on introductory details that I’ll blurt out, “Stop telling me about it, and just tell me!”
Start out with your main subject. Save the atmosphere for later, or leave it out.
Concise is best.
Brief, succinct, terse: be these.
Remove excess words, sentences, and sections. Keep things clean and moving. This does not mean to entirely avoid adjectives and adverbs. These can be helpful for specifics. “Buy our server” is not as persuasive as “Buy our fast, cheap, and secure server.”
When writers follow the advice of these tips, my job is easier, readers are happier, confusion is less rampant, and more problems are solved, making people’s lives easier.