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?
Reader Comments (63)
Excellent. ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’ – Shakespeare.
Al Kalar says
“Tell them what you’re going to tell them.”
My advice to non-fiction writers has always been:
1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them.
2. Tell them (what you have to say).
3. Tell them what you just told them.
Jessica Satterfield says
This article sums up everything I’ve ever tried to communicate to my non-writer business colleagues. Thanks for putting it all in one place for a handy reference!
What did I say over at DBT?
Another great contribution, Skellie. I might just have to follow you on Twitter. It might, in some odd way, help me to write better 🙂
…and I might not write ‘might’ in such close proximity!
Joanna Young says
Hello and welcome 🙂 You’ve been busy this week!
I enjoyed this review of ways to write clearly – just one thought to add, that you can have too many headlines as well as too many metaphors – I’ve seen people get a bit carried away with their organisational structure…
Mohsin | Blogging Bits says
“In this post, I want to outline a few simple things you can do to make anything you write easier to understand.”
You could have said “In this post, I’ll outline a few simple guidelines you can use to make your writing easier to understand” to make it clearer 😉
“.. they’ll better be able to..” should be “.. they’ll be better able to..”.
I could point out some more need-to-improve areas, but I don’t wanna sound b!tchy 😛 and Skellie, you know I am a big fan of your ideas. I just think you need to unstuff your writing a bit, because, right now, you add too many extraneous words that shouldn’t be there.
Absolutely clear as mud, so tis!! 🙂
Excellent reminder of the ‘do’s’ of a clear and crisp writing style. Thanks.
Have a grand weekend. Take ye care.
@ Joanna: That’s a good point. Sometimes going too far with the formatting can make it all about the visuals and de-emphasize what you’re trying to say.
@ Mohsin: I respect you too, but I think you’re nitpicking there.
Joel Falconer says
While it is true that a news story with more than one sentence per paragraph is not a news story, this doesn’t always work so well online – two sentences per paragraph is the perfect balance for the web, I think.
In fact, most of your paragraphs contained two sentences – even in the section that mandated only one 😉 But just proof that in practice, unless it’s an online news story two sentences are better than one.
One final addition: your tips are all great, but you missed the one thing that makes for really clear, concise, on-the-point writing: structure and planning. Most writers will plan and give their articles a structure before they begin writing the article proper, but many bloggers haven’t quite caught on to this one yet.
Fred Wood says
I agree with Joel. Two sentences per paragraph seems to be the right level for the web.
Mason Hipp says
Tough audience here Skellie, but really great post.
Personally, I thought your writing was run-into-the-glass-door-because-I-can’t-see-it clear, which is good because that’s exactly what this post was about.
Congrats on guest posting at my two favorite blogs : )
Brian Clark says
Generally, this is true. But single-sentence paragraphs are wonderful for making a clear point and adding emphasis. I often also like to start a post with a couple of single sentences (just like Skellie did here), because it’s great for maintaining the attention you create with the headline.
hilary shantz says
Thanks for the reminder about clarity. I like a simple writing style. Yet it isn’t such a bad thing to occasionally use a word that is not known by the reader if it is used appropriately and does not sound pedantic, it increases our word power doesn’t it?
Also to Joel whose comment was just about as clear as skellie’s article. Nice comment and we really must ask ourselves what’s going on in our language when we are writing one or two word paragraphs. If anyone has information on appropriate length statistics for blogs, I would be very grateful as well.
Finally, what does this ([…] […])symbol mean? Just one last bit here: skellie I agree with your assessment regarding Mohsin’s comment. Words always have more impact when used correctly; subsequently, the improper use of the ellipsis really destroys Mohsin’s response. Nothing personal and certainly no offense intended.
Brian Clark says
Copywriters have been doing it for 100 years… because it works. The goal is effective communication, not arbitrary rules.
Blogs are no different. But do what works for you and your readers, because that’s all that matters.
Joel Falconer says
I agree that taking writing guidelines such as the “sentences-per-paragraph” guideline as hard n’ fast rules can only be detrimental to the piece. Two per paragraph is a good average, but can be varied for effect. Some blogs actually work better with longer paragraphs. And let’s not even mention Steve Pavlina’s name when it comes to length 😉
Joel Falconer says
Paul, if you see “([…] […])” enclosing text in a comment, it’s a trackback.
Brian Clark says
Joel, excellent point. I started out of the gate with essay length posts, even when everyone said never go over 250 words on a blog. I thought that was just silly.
As long as you offer value, people will read. But clarity is critical to making sure people are getting what you’re saying, especially if the post is long.
Joel Falconer says
Bloggers inherited the long vs. short copy debate from copywriters; I don’t take part in that debate because I agree with you – value is what matters. The length of your piece will depend on the depth of your topic.
I never thought clarity in writing culd be a controversial topic, but the comments on this post are mild compared to those I’ve seen elsewhere recently.
I find it incredible that there are still professionals out there who believe using simple word structures is somehow dumbing down the audience and destroying the ‘rich tapestry’ of our language. Of course, as a copywriter myself, I come across woeful copy every day, almost always from the business community and always attempting to convince a customer that they are intelligent and reputable because they use long words.
It’s enough to make me weep.
Glenn (Customer Service Experience) Ross says
Is the word “extraneous” extraneous?
Latarsha Lytle says
Thanks for giving us the bare simple facts.
Simplicity beats out complexity everytime…
Brian Clark says
Mohsin | Blogging Bits says
Skellie, pardon my audacity. I still love you 🙂
Paul, I don’t get you.
Glenn, Depends. In my case, “extraneous” did what its alternatives couldn’t.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing for the sake of argument. I am of opinion that blogging isn’t all about praise. Some criticism once in a while helps too.
Here is a question to everyone: are my objections in the earlier comment not valid? If not, how so?
P.S. let’s keep the discussion positive, shall we? I am sure all of us can learn a lesson or two from it.
@ Joel: I was citing newspapers as an example, but I actually think we can be more flexible than one sentence per paragraph.
My main point was that with paragraphs, it’s much easier to have too few than too many. But it just goes to show that clarity is tricky — even in an article about clarity! 🙂
@ Mohsin: It’s not that the points you made weren’t correct. I probably could have written those two sentences better. But I’d struggle to find any piece of writing that couldn’t be improved in some minor way.
Writing with clarity doesn’t necessarily mean writing with perfection. Nobody is perfect. I don’t pretend to be. I think constructive criticism is vitally important, but I think there is a difference between constructive criticism and focusing on any sentence that isn’t perfect. If we did that, the blogosphere wouldn’t be a very fun place.
No hard feelings, though. I appreciate that you were only trying to help :).
Joel Falconer says
I certainly agree, Skellie. I wasn’t trying to criticize your writing, as I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the article. Rather, just trying to offer some extra tips based on my own experiences 🙂
Brian Clark says
Mohsin, I had no problem with your comments necessarily, it’s just that it’s rough trying to give writing advice, because you’re open to criticism.
So, Skellie put herself out there, you added your critique, and then someone came along and nitpicked at your accidental redundancy in language.
I just find it all a bit amusing. Forgive me. 🙂
Mohsin | Blogging Bits says
Thanks for your response Skellie and Brain.
It’s all too amusing, isn’t it? First Skellie writes about clarity of writing, and I come along saying that her writing needs clarity, she and others make me feel guilty about my critique, I defend myself and challenge everyone to disprove me, Skellie responds and says she has no problem with my objections but my critique was uncalled for.
Well, I agree. I am quite a party pooper. Just the other day I was telling Maki (at DoshDosh) how his writing could do with a bit of humor, because currently his style is a bit too academic. I have a problem with ChrisG and Darren Rowse’s writing too. These guys don’t care about proper punctuation. 🙂
But that doesn’t mean I am less of a fan of all these great folks. They have my respect for the great content they produce. And so do you Skellie.
Brian, agreed. Forgive my bad social skills. 🙂
Moshin – I agree with your critique completely.
Skellie, respectfully, he wasn’t nitpicking. You wrote an article about clear writing, yet your sentences could have been much tighter and livelier. His “edit” was a perfect example. Your response should have been, “Good work!”
Respectfully – and this was MY experience – as I read your article I got a little bored. My eyes drifted. I don’t say that to be hurtful. I’m telling you my reaction.
My friend Dave once said, “All good fiction – or writing in general – should stimulate the visual cortex.” (And I would add – OR it needs to be conversational.)
It means creating word-pictures. Metaphors…
The best song lyrics stimulate the visual cortex and the senses. For example, Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”:
“Screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways…Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays…”
Nobody’s perfect. I’m certainly not. Congrats for putting yourself out there, but stay open to helpful criticism!
Skellie – I apologize if this is obnoxious. I re-read your post and realized why I got bored. The sentences (in my opinion) lack vitality. I want to illustrate…maybe it’ll help:
“Throughout my schooling years teachers must have repeated this refrain a hundred times when describing the structure of an essay.”
A more exciting version?: “My teachers hammered this point home relentlessly about essay structure…”
You also wrote:
“A good essay introduction maps out the logic of what follows, and in my experience, this strategy is powerful across all forms of writing.”
To me, this sentence is lifeless. I wouldn’t take it out on a date. Why? Because it’s too cerebral and abstract. You didn’t grab my eyes by the lapels.
An better alternative?: “An essay introduction is like a roadmap; it shows us what kind of trip we’re about to take.”
Was that your point?
Feel free to pick away at my suggestions. Just trying to help!
Geoff Livingston says
Well done, Brian. I try to state my thesis in every opening paragraph. After Copyblogger, there are only three more words you need, “Strunk & White.” Together you can’t go wrong.
@ Mark: I appreciate the time you’ve taken to offer me some advice. I’m not sure it’s advice I can use, though. What you’re suggesting is that I adopt a different ‘voice.’ I don’t think that has anything to do with clarity.
A good essay introduction maps out the logic of what follows…
Is no less clear than:
An essay introduction is like a roadmap; it shows us what kind of trip we’re about to take.
The second version uses a simile to illustrate what is already clear.
The examples you’ve given don’t show that my writing is unclear. What they do show is that you find my writing kinda boring. And that’s fine.
I’d counter your specific suggestions by saying that “hammered home relentlessly” is a cliché, and to me, “an essay introduction is a road map: it shows us what kind of trip we’re about to take” sounds trite. They’re not sentences I’d use, nor are they sentences that would interest me as a reader.
I accept that my writing could be made livelier, but it’s a process of long term improvement and something I’ve already been trying to do for a while. I still think I do clarity pretty well, though.
William Profet :: OneJobTwoSalaries.com says
Show them what you’re going to tell them!
We are living in 21-st century. We have available Photoshop, Flash, PowerPoint, Visio, etc. It is stupid not to use images, diagrams, schemes even cartoons to make clear your point.
An image tells more than thousand words. This has been tested in real life many times.
“Every complex word can be broken down into simpler ones.”
– This is so true! I’m tierd of people and web content writers who forget that they write for others and not for their profesoor in college.
…. you people need a life, analysing everyones writing like that.
Notice how everybody tries to write perfectly in the comments, so that they don’t get attacked or so that their points remain valid??
That’s screwed up on so many levels.
This article was great, really. You don’t read any better elsewhere.
Skellie – You make decent points.
I didn’t mean to suggest you should write in a different voice. Nor did I mean to say that your writing isn’t clear. It is. The words are in the right places. Your sentences flow, good punctuation…
Yet I wasn’t captivated–(forgive me for sounding cold)– and I DON’T think that’s fine! 😉 The article is about clear writing!
Clear writing, to me, is also about captivating your reader! If your goal is to educate, you gotta know that employing visuals and metaphors is one of the most powerful ways to teach. It has nothing to do with style — it’s about being effective.
Sorry to nitpick again….but for example, even the briefest line like:
“the logic of what follows” is, to me, vague and unimpactful. My eyes glaze over it. Why? No picture. My eyes search for something they can SEE, feel, and touch.
Your article is filled with lines like that.
Sorry you don’t seem to find my words helpful!
Mike Huang says
This post reminds me of “kids” that type in slang. LOLS :-).
Skellie, when you write I feel like a real dummy, nto because I don’t understand your writing but because your writing skills are just so excellent that whenever you write something it’s interesting, I learn something and feel like I need to go off an apply it. My writing sucks alot of the time mostly because I don’t craft. I don’t do much planning or checking either. Thanks for the inspiration and all the fantastis lessons I get in my RSS reader on a daily basis.
Saleem Siddiqui says
This is a great blog. I initially was apprehensive about writing a blog. I have already had people tell me my writing and grammar are terrible.
So I have focused on Video and Audio Podcast!
I talk about using the internet social networking and blogging to change perceptions of the Muslim world.
How to Win the War of Ideology.
My name is Saleem Siddiqui and when people see or here my name they assume I am a foreigner. Well I am actually a native English speaker. My poor writing skills only highlight my time in public school.
Check out my site dealing with the Internet and our changing world.
Looking at the Hottest issues in the News, Politics and PoP Culture, from inside the Muslim Mind.
[…] guest writer Skellie’s written a great post on the importance of clarity.
While it might seem obvious, her point is invaluable – it doesn’t matter how important your message is if you can’t explain it clearly to your reader. […]
Ray Leigh says
Selectivity is 90% of great writing.The rest is knowing how to use a reference book. http://www.thebaldchemist.com arguably one of the best copywriters around.
Nature Wallpaper says
I hate when people write lengthy just to make something long. There is no reason to! When I write, I do it clear and simple! If you have an assignment to write and it calls for 3 – 5 pages, do the minimum but not because it’s less work, but do it to be more effective. On top of which making 3 pages more effective than 5 is a lot harder, so consider that!
Zach @ ClearWriter says
But I think it understates the importance of headings and titles, if you’re working in a format where they are appropriate.
Headings are a great way of “signposting” your argument, which is particularly key if the material is dense and complicated or if you’re competing for readers’ limited attention spans.
Too many writers miss the opportunity to use compelling, communicative headings and rely instead on boring labels.
Consider two headings:
A. Credit market trends
B. Subprime troubles drive credit market chaos
I’ve found that sentence-style heads can be a great way of making writing clear — and engaging readers.
Mike Allison says
This is a great piece of writing and a super article for anyone that needs to brush up on their writing skills. As a corporate trainer in China, I have the opportunity to work with some of the world’s largest multi-nationals to help their Chinese staff improve their English writing skills and this post is one that I’m definitely going to reference in my workshops.
This article's comments are closed.