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Clarity is fundamental

Have you ever left a website because you couldn’t understand what the company did? Or read a paragraph 10 times over, because the message just wasn’t sinking in?

If you have, did you feel stupid? Like it was your fault you didn’t understand?

Because you shouldn’t have.

Respectful companies don’t make their potential customers feel stupid. Ever.

They write clearly and carefully to be sure their target audience can understand what they’re saying.

Why do so many companies get it wrong?

Companies that make their communications hard to understand often do so because they don’t put clarity at the forefront of their communications. Instead, they:

  • Use too much jargon and inaccessible language
  • Try to sound ‘professional’ by using big words and complex sentence structures
  • Prioritise being clever over being clear.

It’s cool to be clear 😎

Or, if you prefer something with a rhyme, it’s good to be understood!

When you communicate clearly, customers know what the deal is and understand what you’re offering. There’s no doubt, no confusion and no misunderstanding.

Clear copy is easy to read and digest on the first attempt. So your audience can focus on your message rather than stumbling over your delivery.

So how can you write more clearly and reap these benefits for your business?

10 Ways to write more clearly

There are lots of ways to make sure your writing is clear, but here are 10 that I use regularly and have always worked for me.

1. Keep it simple

Writing simply is a skill — and it’s the best way to communicate complex information.

When you write simply, you use clear straightforward language and make each point carefully and concisely. The idea is to keep your writing easy to read and digestible, to keep your readers engaged.

It’s worth remembering that simple doesn’t mean the same as basic. Simple doesn’t mean dulling down and it still sounds intelligent, articulate and professional.

2. Be clear about what you mean

Ambiguity in your communications causes confusion, so you need to be crystal clear about what you mean and make sure it comes across properly.

Example:
You’ll need to provide fingerprint ID or passcode and email address.

This isn’t clear, because it can be read three different ways. It’s not clear if you need to provide:

  • Fingerprint ID only
  • Fingerprint ID and email address
  • Passcode and email address

What the writer meant to say was that you need to provide fingerprint ID or passcode and email address.

In this case, the ambiguity could be corrected with punctuation.

Example:
You’ll need to provide fingerprint ID, or passcode and email address.

But to be doubly sure, we can confirm it in the words, like this:

Example:
You’ll need to provide either your fingerprint ID or your passcode and email address.

3. Keep your lengths in check

By lengths, I mean your sentences and paragraphs.

Sentences

For optimum clarity, use each sentence to make one or two points at the most.

Varying the length of your sentences is a good way to keep your audience’s attention. Case in point, this amazing example by Gary Provost.

Image] The art of sentence length.: writing

Paragraphs

Some people seem to have never heard of a paragraph. Their written content looks like an impenetrable wall with no breaks in it. To a reader, this is incredibly off-putting.

Instead, see what I’m doing here in this blog post. I’m keeping each paragraph short — 3–4 lines at most — and leaving a line space between them.

As a general rule, you should start a new paragraph when you:

  • End an introduction or start a conclusion
  • Introduce a new idea or make a new point
  • Present an idea or information that contrasts with what you’ve already written
  • Want to create a pause.

4. Avoid words you don’t understand

You may have seen TV comedy shows, where a character uses the wrong word and everyone laughs. It’s not so funny if you do it on your website, or in a brochure that’s been distributed to thousands of potential customers.

You might think big words make you sound more professional, but they can also make you sound ridiculous if you get them wrong.

So how do you avoid mistakes like these?

If you have any doubts about the meaning of a word, look it up in a dictionary. If it means what you want to say, check the usage examples and make sure you’re using it correctly. Finally, ask someone you trust, and who has a good vocabulary, to double check it.

Or, more simply, if you’re unsure about a word and don’t feel confident to use it — don’t use it. Instead, choose a word you do understand and feel comfortable with.

5. Use more transition words

Transition words — also known as ‘linking’ or ‘connecting’ words — are the glue that holds an argument together.

Here are some examples of transition words:

  • Because
  • Therefore/So
  • Which means
  • However/But/Although
  • Whereas
  • For example
  • Similarly
  • Otherwise
  • Consequently/As a result.

Some writing guides may tell you to cut words like these because they’re ‘unnecessary’. But they actually have an important part to play in making your copy more readable and helping your readers understand.

Transition words work by signposting readers through your logic and train of thought. And they add clarity by showing the relationship between the points you’ve made.

6. Limit the number of clauses in each sentence

Clauses are things like conditions, requirements and restrictions. When you overload a sentence with clauses it can become virtually impossible to make sense of it.

Example:
A client becomes eligible for the free ebook when, before commencement of the first session (which they have already paid for) they have signed up for sessions 2 and 3 (to be completed after the first session) and have paid the deposits for sessions 2 and 3.

If you’re having to use separating commas and brackets like this, then you probably have too many clauses. Let’s see if we can unravel this.

Example:
To be eligible for the free ebook, a client must have paid in advance for the first session. In addition, the client must have signed up for sessions 2 and 3 and have paid deposits for those sessions.

Splitting the sentence in two means we’re not overloading either sentence with too many clauses.

7. Avoid awkward sentences

There are numerous ways a sentence can be awkward to read. Let’s look at some of them.

Wordy sentences

Wordy sentences are hard to read because they contain a lot of unnecessary words. These words can be cut from the sentence without affecting the meaning or what you’re actually trying to say.

Example:
In order to cater for different dietary requirements, we take into consideration the need for alternative options. Under circumstances in which a dish is unsuitable for you, we can adapt it specifically to your wants and needs.

These sentences have so many words, they’re not making good sense. Let’s see if we can fix that.

Example:
We cater for different dietary requirements. If a dish isn’t suitable for your needs, we can customise it for you.

Backwards sentences

Backwards sentences leave the most important point until the end, when it should be at the beginning.

Example:
Affordable housing, ample employment opportunities, excellent transport links, stylish bars and quality restaurants and are all benefits of living in East London.

Your reader won’t even understand what the sentence is talking about until they get to the last six words. And then they might have to read the whole sentence again. As a writer, you want to avoid this.

Example:
Benefits of living in East London include affordable housing, ample employment opportunities, excellent transport links, stylish bars and quality restaurants.

Repetitive sentences

Unnecessary repetition makes sentences clunky.

Example:
Good trainers help each trainee they train to become a better trainee.

This is a terrible sentence! Aside from the repetition, it’s obvious that this should be the case, isn’t it? We could improve it, like this:

Example:
A good trainer helps their trainees be better.

But, honestly, this one should be killed with fire!

8. Junk the jargon

If your readers need a dictionary to understand what you do, they’ll lose interest there and then. And sometimes even a dictionary won’t help.

Example:
We’re experts in statistical analysis and data reconfiguration.

What on earth does this company do? Let’s try a jargon-free explanation to make it clearer.

Example:
We simplify and explain data, so it’s easy to understand.

9. Explain abbreviations and acronyms

Some abbreviations and acronyms are well-known, but many are industry specific. You might use them so routinely, you take them for granted. But your customers won’t have a clue what they mean.

What is an abbreviation?

An abbreviation is where we just use the first letter of each word in a name or phrase to shorten it. For example, RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).

What is an acronym?

An acronym is similar to an abbreviation, but the first letters of each word form a new word. For example, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

When to explain abbreviations and acronyms

If you’re writing something and you’re going to be using the same abbreviation or acronym multiple times, just explain it the first time you use it.

Example:
HVAC stands for Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning. Our HVAC systems are efficient and easy to install.

Example:
We will come to your premises and assess your specific HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) needs.

10. Try writing more conversationally

If you want to sound more professional, you might be tempted to use more formal language. But this is the language you’d use if you were writing something like a formal report, academic paper or legal document.

For everyday communications with your customers, you can be more informal and conversational in the way you write.

What is conversational writing?

Conversational writing is when you write more like you speak. As though you’re talking to your ideal customer as they’re sitting in front of you — but the best possible version of that. It’s more filtered and considered, with any waffle and wordiness cut out.

Why use conversational writing?

When you write conversationally, it’s less forced and more natural. You’re less likely to overthink it or use big words and elaborate language. And it will be more digestible.

Your audience will appreciate this — whoever they are and however ‘professional’ they might seem. Because everybody likes things that are clear easy to read. And nobody wants to have to read the same paragraph more than once if they don’t have to.

Does your business need clearer copy?

If you feel your business communications could benefit from clearer and more direct copywriting, maybe I can help.

I’m a UK copywriter with more than 20 years’ professional writing experience. And I specialise in explaining complex ideas and propositions simply and clearly.

To discover more about how I could help you, visit my main website where you’ll find all the information you need.