If readers don’t understand what you write, you might as well have written nothing at all.
Ground-breaking ideas don’t count for much if you can’t express them clearly, and your incisive opinion won’t carry much weight if it can’t be followed.
Worthwhile writing should contain new, interesting and complex ideas. It should challenge the reader and, hopefully, resonate. To be effective, this kind of writing must be crystal clear.
In this post, I want to outline a few simple things you can do to make anything you write easier to understand.
Let’s start with an old favorite:
Tell them what you’re going to tell them
Throughout my schooling years teachers must have repeated this refrain a hundred times when describing the structure of an essay.
A good essay introduction maps out the logic of what follows, and in my experience, this strategy is powerful across all forms of writing.
Telling the reader what to expect will assist them in following your logic and linking together your ideas.
If readers know from the outset what you’re getting at, they’ll be able to look at each sentence you’ve written through the prism of your intended meaning. In doing so, they’ll better be able to see how each point you make relates to the big picture you’re painting.
Look this way
David L. Sifry, CEO and founder of Technorati, recently said that “Italian comic Beppe Grillo broke into the [Technorati] Top 10 by setting his key points in boldface.”
(That’s it, guys: the secret to cracking the Technorati Top 10, straight from the horse’s mouth. Set your key points in bold.)
While this strategy might not take you all the way without the help of a few other factors, using formatting to emphasize key points is a simple way to add clarity to your articles. That’s not to suggest readers will only only read text you’ve emphasized. Rather, bolding tells the reader “this is particularly important.”
Sub-headings perform a slightly different function when it comes to clarity. They help break your post down into a distinct and manageable sequence of ideas and concepts.
The newspapers do it
An interesting fact: most hard news stories in the papers follow a strict formula of one sentence = one paragraph.
This is good for readability, as it gives each sentence space to breathe. Writing that’s easy to read is always easier to understand.
That’s not the only reason paragraphs are important for clarity, though. They also help prevent distinct ideas from bleeding into each other.
On top of that, paragraph breaks give readers time and space to digest each point you make. You’ll notice Brian uses them a lot in his articles, too.
Complex words are lackadaisical lazy
Every complex word can be broken down into simpler ones.
By complex I’m referring to any word which might cause your readers to open a new browser-tab and point it to Dictionary.com. Clear communication should never require effort on the part of the reader. Looking up a word, or puzzling it out, is unnecessary effort.
You might even take this a step further. Could any words you’ve written be replaced by simpler ones, with the same meaning?
Simple, economical words are always easiest to understand, even if they disappoint your inner Pulitzer Prize Winner.
If you’ll allow me to use an analogy…
Plato made a set of complex philosophical ideas timeless and accessible by presenting them as a story of prisoners trapped in a cave. The result was his Allegory of the Cave, which went on to provide the philosophical underpinnings of The Matrix more than 2,500 years later.
Analogies, similes and metaphors work so well because they use an idea the reader already understands to help them comprehend one they don’t. In Do Your Metaphors Rock? Brian provided this piece of advice:
If a particular point is difficult to understand, craft a metaphor to smooth it over. When attempting to persuade or sell, identify potential objections and reframe the issue via a relatable metaphor.
A final note: the metaphor and its siblings are most powerful when used sparingly. Overdo it and you might end up swapping clarity for confusion.
Clear as mud?