December 18, 2020
Writing tips for clearer communications
Writing is never about you. It’s about your reader. Your reader wants to learn, to navigate, to do something.
Good writing facilitates that. We put together a few tips to help ensure your communications are not only easy to read but faster to write.
Shorten your sentences
Simply stated, short sentences are easier to read. But remember that interesting writing relies on rhythm. Aim for 15–20 words, but do mix it up with a few slightly longer sentences, so the paragraph reads better, and the meaning is clear. A good rule of thumb is to aim for one point or idea per sentence.
Be active versus passive
We often tend to write using the “passive” voice. But using the active voice makes your sentences direct, dynamic and easy to read. Here’s an example:
Active sentence: Our client (subject) read (verb) the document (object).
The subject comes before the verb, so the reader knows what the subject (the client) is doing (reading) before we say what (the document).
Here’s a passive version of the same sentence.
Passive sentence: The document (object) was read (verb) by our client (subject).
You’ll notice that the passive sentence is wordier. (Which literally it is, given that it needs extra words to make sense.)
Typically, we talk in the active voice. So if you’re unsure whether your writing in the active voice or passive, a good test is to ask yourself if that’s how you would describe what’s happening if you said it out loud.
Should you always avoid the passive voice? Not necessarily. Sometimes you don’t know who or what the subject of a sentence is and sometimes a passive verb might be more appropriate or just sounds better.
But for the most part, try writing more active sentences in your communications. They make your writing clearer and more engaging.
Use pronouns to sound like a human being
Using pronouns is a great way to make your writing less stuffy. Use them to stay focused on the reader and sound more, well, human.
Even if you’re writing on behalf of an organization, avoid relying on third-person and the company name. Instead, say, “We do this…” or “Our product does that…”
Likewise, speak directly to the reader. Instead of referring to them as ‘customers’ or ‘audience’ or ‘users,’ be more conversational and say, “You can do this…” or, “Your solution is…”
Write for your reader
Jargon, acronyms, buzzwords are pervasive in every organization and every industry. These inside words are a lot like inside jokes – they mean nothing to someone who is not within the organization.
That doesn’t mean you have to dumb your writing down. If your readers understand and use this jargon themselves, then go ahead and use it. Good writing is not always about being simple – it means knowing your audience and choosing the words that you know they use and understand.
Don’t get bogged down in politeness
Communication is supposed to inform and help people get things done. So don’t be afraid to tell people what to do: follow, like, share, subscribe, buy.
Don’t say: The document should be downloaded.
Do say: Download the document.
Don’t say: Applicants are advised to read the job profile.
Do say: Read the job profile.
Be on the look-out for words like “just” or “simply” – words that undermine the confidence in your message. When you’re not direct, you instantly default into longer sentences, passive verbs, and fewer pronouns.
You don’t need to invent more nouns
Nominalization (or nouning) is when you create a noun out of a verb. Nominalizations are typically processes, feelings and other intangibles that you read and run into every single day. You can recognize them by their ability to spark eye-rolls, for example:
“On completion of the task.” vs. “When the task is complete.”
“We had a discussion.” vs. “We discussed.”
“She made a suggestion.” vs “She suggested”
As you can see, the verbs mean fewer words, are more direct and lead to more interesting, engaging sentences. They are also more active – something is actually happening.
Use headings and lists
Headings and lists help break up content, split information and make dense or complex information easier to read and scan.
A good heading should tell the reader what they’ll find or learn in the text below.
A good list should only express one point or idea per bullet.
Only use a numbered list if there is a specific order to the items. Otherwise, stick to bullets.
Write accessible hyperlinks
In short, your links should mean something. They should tell the reader where they will go if they tap or click on them, not least because your reader might not be a ‘reader’ at all.
People with limited sight often use a screen reader to browse the internet. The device pulls up a list of links on a page and reads them back in audio form. If those links don’t have meaning – think ‘click here’ and ‘read more’ – the listener will have no idea where they lead.
Don’t say: Check out my blog post.
Do say: Read my article about writing accessible links.
Beyond accessibility issues, clearly written links help the reader get from one place to another. They should be able to scan a page, see its links and make a quick decision. Your job is to help them do that. Poorly written, ambiguous links will only frustrate and, in some cases, send them on a wild goose chase.
Establish a style guide
Consistency is key to any writing project. A standard words document is simple to produce but can have a significant impact on the quality of your copy.
The document is a list of names, phrases and frequently used words alongside their correct usage. From how to correctly spell the name of an organization to an agreed method for writing dates, times and page titles, standard words are vital, especially if you work in a team. There is no point you writing one way if other people in your team – or your client – is doing it differently. A standard words document should be a living, breathing thing that gets updated and maintained regularly. We’ve created a standard words template as part of our brand style guide.
There are plenty of tools that mitigate the risk of typos. Grammarly is one application I use that acts as a real-time, virtual proofreader across all applications, including online forms and social media platforms. Going beyond a standard spell check, the Grammarly editor can detect when you’ve inadvertently missed or misused a word. This can be highly useful to ensure you don’t publish a typo in your Facebook feed or email.
But no technology is a match for a real proofreader: someone who reads your words with fresh eyes and ensures that what you’re writing is what you intended. And that’s important because, in the knowledge economy, errors in written communications don’t just reduce credibility and compromise brand positioning, as you can read about in this article, they can cost money!
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