5 ways experts make their writing clear, concise, and easy to understand

Craig Clarke

By Craig Clarke
February 19, 2020

5 ways experts make their writing clear, concise, and easy to understand

As an expert in your field, your goal is to transfer your knowledge to the reader. The best way to do that is to make your writing as easy to understand as possible. In the first century, Roman rhetorician Quintilian wrote that we should go even further and make our writing impossible to misunderstand.

Here are five ways to make sure your reader doesn’t get tripped up by your message.

  1. Think like the reader.
  2. Choose basic words.
  3. Use simple sentences.
  4. Get to the point.
  5. Be concise.

1. Think like the reader.

Earlier in my career, I worked for an educational publisher. While working on a state assessment, I realized 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 applies to every topic, including 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.

2. 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 web comic 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.

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 basic words are only part of the equation.

3. Use simple sentences.

Modern readers are looking for any reason to stop reading your work. 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 makes your reader respond in one of two ways. Either they can’t understand what it says, so your information isn’t coming across—or they're in the industry, so it's not telling them anything new.

With a parade of jargon, you’ve lost your prime opportunity to hook them.

One tool to help you see where you could improve your sentences is the Hemingway Editor. It gives a grade-level readability score and also highlights adverbs, passive voice, complex phrases, words with simpler options, and hard-to-read sentences.

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?

One sentence is now six. And at an eighth-grade level, it’s a lot easier to understand. But it's even better to…

4. Get to the point.

I have a friend who cannot tell a short anecdote. He starts by giving all the background information he thinks you need to understand the situation. So much that I’ll blurt out, “Stop telling me about it, and just tell me!”

Start out with your main subject. Dish out the atmosphere later in pieces—or just leave it out.

5. Be concise.

Brief, succinct, terse—be these.

Remove excess words, sentences, and sections. Keep things clean and moving.

This does not mean to avoid adjectives and adverbs. They can be helpful for specifics. “Buy our server” is not as persuasive as “Buy our fast, cheap, and secure server.”

Keep your copy and content clear.

When experts follow the advice of these tips, writing is clearer, readers are happier, and more problems are solved, making people’s lives easier.

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