Writing copy that is easy to read should go without saying. Yet many of us struggle to write with brevity and clarity.
We get caught in a trap of trying too hard to write well, often making our writing worse.
When you read a copy like this you find yourself looking back over sentences. The words defeat the reader instead of serving them. We ‘overdress our thoughts in fine language’ when clear communication is all a reader really needs.
These days, every reader is only a momentary distraction away from abandoning your writing for whatever else is a swipe away. Most will. We have written a guide to being more readable. So you can hold on to those precious eyeballs for as long as possible.
This blog comes about after a presentation Click2View gave to a large global bank on readability. Their analysts and researchers were writing copy that was getting poor readability scores.
One of the first things we told them was the simplest lesson most of us forget. Say only one thing at a time. One statement per sentence. One idea per paragraph.
In one piece of copy we edited as part of this engagement we found a sentence that should have been five. The sentence rule is so often broken, it is like jaywalking. We kinda know it’s wrong but hey, you’re not going to get in trouble.
Part of the problem is sentence structure and length. Bad sentences use commas where there should be full stops. In fact, if you use a comma you should always ask yourself, do you need it? Or, should it be a full stop? And don’t get me started on semicolons, what are they even for?
There is no reason to write long sentences just because you are writing for an audience that might be considered thoughtful or smart in some way. Or, if you want to be considered thoughtful and smart. The best sentences are short. If you can get away with it, sometimes two or three words.
Think of long sentences like a treat, or a punchline.
“When you have lots of short sentences, when you do want to do a long one, it pops,” one of the world’s top non-fiction writers, Malcolm Gladwell said in a Masterclass he gave about writing.
“It’s not that you should be scared of long sentences but use them sparingly. Your reader has a limited appetite for them but they’ll enjoy them if they’ve been set up appropriately.”
Our bank wanted to make their writing more readable but they were concerned about simplifying the writing. They thought it was dumbing down the content. They did not want their affluent readers feeling as though they were being spoken down to.
Nothing could be further from the truth. You write to convey information to a reader. If you make the reading easy, the information flows. It’s not like you’re quietly quitting. “Easy reading is damn hard writing,” the 19th Century American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne said.
Paragraphs should follow your ideas, one by one. If in doubt, make a new paragraph.
If your writing is complex and detailed, it will take more sentences to convey an idea. If your ideas flow quite quickly, short paragraphs are fine. A paragraph can be a single sentence. Or two. It doesn’t matter.
One thing is certain. If your sentences are still short and to the point, it will keep the reader engaged.
In the third season of the TV show Ted Lasso, the ever-quotable Ted says: “Brevity is nice but sometimes clarity is the true soul of wit.” The point is that it is not just the shortness of the word, sentence or paragraph that counts, but conveying a message simply and easily.
Clarity comes from having a clear message and not cluttering it up with the unnecessary. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry the author of The Little Prince said perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
Work out what you’re trying to say and say it as simply as possible.
One of the most-read books on writing well in the last century was called The Complete Plain Words, by Sir Ernest Gowers. It was written to teach the British public service to abandon their bureaucratic language because it had become hard to understand. They were lost in bad habits and their use of the English language was no longer useful.
As you might imagine, the book focuses on using plain words that are readily understood by the reader. This is paramount. We should aim to write in a way that the words at least can be understood by a child. Malcolm Gladwell’s writing is judged to be appropriate for an eight year old. “They may not understand every idea but the writing is not going to defeat them,” Gladwell says.
We’re seemingly on this path of using words to mystify rather than clarify with the corporate speak of today. A colleague at another firm advising the top end of town was bemoaning this to me the other day.
“Get rid of all the buzzwords and jargon I tell them, they all nod and agree with me, yet three months later it’s all back again,” he said.
Jargon is both paradise and perdition. We should avoid jargon as a general rule. Most jargon is bad, but there is some that is good.
The bad jargon – along with overly technical terms and acronyms – assumes knowledge and slows down the flow of the reading. Nothing stops a reader dead than a word they don’t understand without any context to work with. That’s bad jargon. In writing its use is either lazy or a deliberate attempt to put the writing out of reach of all but a select few.
Good jargon is really interesting. It is the shorthand of experts. If it is important your reader understands something like this when it adds to the clarity of what you are saying. Explain it. Take the time to expand on it. Your reader will thank you for it and your writing will brim with expertise – otherwise known as ‘thought leadership’.
As I said earlier, in trying to write well we can do ourselves a disservice. There is a piece of jargon in writing called ‘killing your babies’. This means if you fall in love with a turn of phrase you think is really good it is probably best to delete it.
Writing is a reflection of the self, and the babies we’re trying to kill are those hubristic sentences that we think will reflect well on us. That line that we think makes us sound smart. Writing is part zen and part productivity. It’s not about you, it’s about getting what you want to say across to the reader, efficiently.
Using small little comparisons, like comparing writing to being zen and being productive are important to clarify your meaning. This is using context. Context decorates your thoughts with general knowledge.
Try and be precise when you can. Use concrete language. Be specific. Why say someone was in their early 40s when you know they are 43.
One of the most important aspects of cutting through with any communication is authenticity and humanity. Be real. This doesn’t mean writing in first person, or littering the copy with every revelation you have. Write like yourself. Make an analogy that you find interesting or that comes from your personal experience. This is candy for the reader – especially so when copy will increasingly be written by a generative text artificial intelligence agent.
Spell things out like I just did above instead of simply writing ‘an AI’.
Write for your audience or be clear about who your audience is. Most of us write for our bosses. It’s obviously better to write for our readers. But let’s be real. Readers don’t give bonuses. Oh that they did.
Revise your work relentlessly. It is sometimes said that writing is rewriting. The famous Hemingway quote says you should write drunk and edit sober. Whatever works for you. But one thing I would suggest is reading your work aloud, and if you’re game, reading it to someone else. This will pick up almost everything.
Structure is important. Start with a plan. If you get stuck just number your points. A chronological order is as good as any, and often better than most. ChatGPT excels at producing a structure for your topic.
A traditional news structure for writing in the digital age becomes more important because most of your readers won’t finish your lovingly crafted copy. So say the most important things first. To those who have made it this far, hats off.
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Click2View is Southeast Asia’s premiere full-service independent B2B content marketing agency servicing clients like Microsoft, Google, Visa, Prudential, and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.