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How to Write Clearly for a Wider Audience

The more you learn about the writing craft, the harder it seems.

Back in kindergarten and the early days of primary school, you learnt how to hold a pencil, how to make the graphite stain the paper and produce signs. These signs are called letters and numbers. After some practice, you learnt how to make a sequence of a couple of letters: {{ subscriber.first_name }}. You learnt to write your name.

And that’s how you spent the rest of your childhood: you knew how to write. You could produce text on paper or on computers. You could create something of your own that could be read by others for many years to come. (I’m confident that what some young people write in school nowadays, may even outlive them.)

But then you grew older. You went to secondary school, to college and maybe even to university. There, you were told to write essays, reports, dissertations, theses.

You weren’t so sure if you could write anymore. Writing this academic hocus pocus or that creative literary analysis suddenly seemed more than putting some words on paper. You became self-conscious. You felt like you needed to learn how to write again. Just knowing how to create signs wasn’t enough anymore. You needed to learn how to write well. And with clarity.

So how does one write with clarity so the whole English-speaking world can understand?

Magic number one

One is the most important number in the literary world. Everything starts with one idea, with one word, with one reader.

If you want to write clearly, your one and only goal is to share one message with one specific audience. That’s why your text needs to be focused. Whenever you try to address too many people at a time or share too many ideas at once, you’ll fail.

And in order to transfer that message successfully, your reader needs to be engaged. You do this by showing what’s in it for them.

Again, you can choose to highlight many benefits. But once more you’ll miss the point. Stick to one benefit. The essential one. Another way to get your message across is by using emotions. Better yet, one core emotion. Have you ever felt multiple emotions at once? Confusing, isn’t it? But when you feel one emotion, you know what you want. You want more happiness, more pleasure, more love. You want to punch the bastard that made you feel angry. You want to cry and forget your pain. Good writers know which emotions lead to which actions. They leverage these emotions to reach their goal. They target one reader with one emotion and one benefit. Their one goal: get their one idea across. 


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How do you write clearly?

Writing clearly means that your message is 100% obvious. There shouldn’t be any room for wrong interpretations or ambiguities.

Sounds easy, right? It isn’t. Writing can be misunderstood in many ways.

Here’s an example from a tweet:

caption for image

I thought this was a clear message: “I would like to have a separate DM app for Twitter.” Boy, was I wrong. I got all sorts of negative reactions, such as taking messages out of Twitter reduces the user experience and this doesn’t benefit Twitter. That’s not what I wanted to say. I wanted to say that I would love to have an app that only shows Twitter DMs and nothing else. Like the Messenger app… So what went wrong?

Using a comparison or metaphor usually helps. But not this time. When you use comparison, you need to be sure it’s 100% correct and that your reader understand.

Writing with perfect clarity also means that everyone should be able to understand your message. And everyone should understand it the same. But that’s a utopian goal.

It’s nearly impossible to write something that will be interpreted the same by every reader. Because we need to take into account their background. This is made up of their social circumstances, their culture, their previous knowledge and more. Even their mood can affect their understanding.

So in an attempt to write with clarity, you need to avoid cultural and geographical ambiguities where possible.

The “Goodmorning to everyone who …” concept is quite popular on Twitter these days. It’s very self-centred. Morning to you is evening on the other side of the planet.

You may think this is a stupid example. Yet, many writers trying to reach a global audience make the mistake of addressing only people in the same time zone or even country.

How can you fix this?

By being more specific. Replace tomorrow or yesterday with a date. Mention which country or time zone you’re talking about.

And always keep the knowledge bias in mind. What seems basic knowledge to you may be more advanced for others. As always, put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Only then will you be able to write a perfectly clear message.

William Zinsser said, “Clear writing is clear thinking. One cannot exist without the other.”

How to add clarity with layout

Figuring out how to deliver your message clearly without ambiguity is one step. 

Now, you need to find a way to deliver that message in a non-overwhelming way. If you write one big block of text, it won’t work. If you use too much white space, it’s boring too.

But you do need white space and some other tools to make your text scannable:

  • Subtitles
  • Images and graphs
  • Bullet points
  • Bold and italics

White space

White space refers to the blank lines between text. It separates paragraphs. <—this is whitespace—> You want to include lots of white space but not too much. A good reference is Nicolas Cole’s 1/3/1 rule.

Start with one sentence.

Then write three sentences. So this part is going to be a bit longer and it will give the text some rhythm. And guess what’s going to follow next?

Yes, another paragraph with just one sentence.

Some people write in 1/1/1 … That’s fine for newsletters and sales emails. It’s standard practice, but don’t it for blog posts, or worse essays, it’s pretty annoying.

Subtitles

Subtitles or subheadings give structure to your text. And most importantly, they make it scannable.

The number of subtitles and the different types of subtitles you need depends on the word count.

Use at least one subtitle every 300 words. And stick to one type of subtitles if you’re text isn’t longer than 1,000 words.

Images and graphs

I’m sure you’re familiar with “a picture is a thousand words”.

When your goal is to clearly share a message, visualising ideas is of great benefit.

Moreover, it will give the reader a mental break from all the words. And again, it makes the whole piece more scannable.

Bullet points

A list combines a couple of the previous benefits:

  • It makes the text more scannable.
  • It gives the reader a visual break.
  • It adds white areas around the list because sentences are usually short.
  • It is easier to process information from a list than from a long sentence with comma’s.

Text markup

When people recently discover PowerPoint, they are eager to use all the effects—preferably a different one for each slide. It’s chaotic. But one well-thought-of effect for the entire presentation gives it an edge.

The same is true with bold text and italics; when used intentionally, they improve the text. Underlining is better avoided.

And if you want something special, use colours. But again, stick to one or two. 

Structure

Structure is easy enough to understand but difficult to execute well.

As I mentioned in previous chapters, white space and subtitles are key to optimising clarity.

But is that all there is to structure?

I don’t think so.

Back to the early days of learning how to write: everything needs an introduction, middle and conclusion.

In Aristotle’s words

“Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”

More or less.

Tell them what you’re going to tell them

The introduction is the most important part of your entire structure. This is where you hook the reader and set everything else up.

A good introduction determines what will follow. What is the reader to expect? Will you bust a myth? Give a solution? Or just try to entertain?

Tell them what you’re going to tell them but don’t give everything away just yet. Keep them curious. But only hint at what you will really say. This is about writing clearly; not about clickbait.

Tell them

Give them the information and get out of the way.

Use several subheadings if needed. Remember: one idea per sentence; one argument per paragraph.

Tell them what you told them

Write the conclusion.

But don’t let it be just a summary of what you’ve told before. If you’re not adding anything new, you might as well leave it out.

So bring together everything you just said, add the missing link and drop the knowledge bomb.

And finally, don’t forget about your CTA.

Language

 Much has been written about the use of language. White and Strunk come to mind. As well as Zinsser and Orwell.

Donald Murray* sums it up nicely: “Shorter words, shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity.”

So how do you do that?

Orwell offers a solution in Politics and the English Language:

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figures of speech that you are used to seeing in print.

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

But which words can you cut?

Adverbs, but also structures like “making a purchase” instead of buying, “in order to” instead of to. “That” is superfluous in most sentences.

Buzzwords not in his time;

Mean lack of specific info or understanding

There’s a lot more about this in the 7Q Writing Framework.

Clear language is what remains after you’ve removed all the garbage.

Example and metaphor

The goal of writing clearly is to use few words and simple words. The focus is on making yourself understandable; not on making the text look beautiful.

But what happens when you deal with complex topics?

Simple language often doesn’t do the trick. 

People can’t always picture something they’ve never seen or heard of. 

That’s when examples, metaphors, analogies and stories come in.

These are the ultimate writing tools, but you need to be careful.

It’s easy to overdo it. It’s easy to make something more complex while you’re trying to simplify it.

And it’s easy to use too many words.

So the rule is: stick to one example.

Like this:

When babies are fascinated by something, it’s easy to feed them. They open their mouths without thinking and swallow. Now think about writing. When readers are fascinated by your story, it’s easy to feed them information. They open their minds without thinking and swallow.

Conclusion

Clear writing means knowing three things: Why you’re writing (your purpose or goal), who you’re writing to, and what you want readers to do. 

It sounds stupidly simple but many people skip those questions and just start writing. That’s how it gets long-winded and confusing. 

These are the tools you can use to write more clearly:

Organised text structure

Skimmable layout

Simple language

Copy edits

Now, the only thing left to do is start. 

If you still feel some insecurities, follow me on Twitter @kjellvdv, join my daily email list The Unrestricted and download the free 7Q Writing Framework

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