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How to Write Clearly About Almost Anything

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Writing is hard. If it’s not you’re probably doing it wrong.

But just because writing is tough doesn’t make it impossible. Nothing is too complex to write clearly about if you follow these tried and tested rules:

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

Tailor the style and content of your writing to suit your audience. An article stuffed with technical jargon may be suitable for an academic journal but unintelligible to readers of a popular newspaper.

When writing for a general audience, assume ignorance. Don’t fall into what linguist Steven Pinker calls the ‘curse of knowledge’ trap – presuming your readers know or care as much about the topic you’re writing about as you do.

PLAN YOUR WRITING

What information or ideas do you want to get across? Decide what is essential and cut out anything unimportant or uninteresting. You may want to write down five words, facts or ideas your story cannot do without. Writing your headline before you draft your piece also helps focus the mind.

Some other tips before putting fingers to keyboard:

·     Research thoroughly before writing. Speak to experts, think hard about the issue and discuss with colleagues.

·     Add a peg to your story. Why is this relevant to your readers now?

·     What are you adding to the topic that’s new or original? Pick an angle and run with it.

·     Know your limits. How much space and time do you have? Give yourself a word count and set a deadline for hitting it.

·     What style will you adopt? Folksy? Formal? Factual? Whichever you choose, involve the reader, try to tell a story and don’t be dull.

STRUCTURE YOUR WRITING

Different forms of writing – speeches, blogs, press releases etc – have different structures. But most have these common ingredients:

·     Headlines should grab the attention of the reader. They should be short – no more than 10 words – and use pithy, evocative words that make you want to read more. For example: “Headless Body in Topless Bar” (New York Post)Use Subheads to flesh out the headline.

·     Lead paragraph – Most readers get no further than the opening sentences. So when writing a news article or press releases this is where your most essential information needs to be. Normally this includes a who (name), what (event), where (place) and when (date). Whys and hows are also important. If you’re writing a speech, blog or feature article feel free to start with a story or anecdote that seizes the reader by the lapels. Then move on to your message or key info.

·     Context  – Don’t assume readers know the ‘back story.’ Explain how we got to where we are – especially when the issue is complicated. Use proof points such as dates and statistics, and experts who can explain the issue better than you can.

·     Quotes add colour, depth and authority to a piece. They can be eyewitness accounts or experts voicing opinions. They should be short, full of lively language and involve contrast or repetition. For example, JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Quotes should not contain facts, jargon or abbreviations.

·     The Conclusion should wrap things up quickly and efficiently, while asking: ‘What next?’

KEEP IT BRIEF

“The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out,” wrote Voltaire. Contrary to what some academics will tell you, being brief does not equal being shallow. So keep your written pieces as short and snappy as possible by cutting out everything that is not necessary.

One way to reduce your word count is to replace cumbersome phrases like in the event of with short words like if. Another is to turn nouns back into verbs. So instead of carry out an evaluation of, use evaluate.

Keep paragraphs short – around 3-4 sentences – and use subheads, bullet points and numbered lists to make texts more readable. Same rule for sentences: two short ones are usually better than a long one with lots of clauses. They are also easier to digest and make snappier soundbites. Finally, short words are usually better than long ones. They take less space, are easier to understand and avoid you sounding like an egghead. So prefer about to approximately, buy to purchase and make to manufacture.

BE CRYSTAL CLEAR

“Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. So think what you want to say, then say it as simply as possible,” advises the Economist Style Guide.

So:

·     Don’t leave readers guessing or confused. If you don’t understand what you are writing about, your readers certainly won’t.

·     Don’t try to be too clever. Over-complicated sentences and rarely used words will confound readers.

·     Write as simply as possible. Prefer concrete words (rain, fog) to abstract ones (bad weather) and avoid non-measurable words like quite, somewhat, rather.

AXE THE JARGON

Jargon is a form of insiders’ language that is intelligible to those in a certain bubble but unintelligible to those outside. If you want to avoid alienating your readers, get rid of tired, technocratic words like stakeholder and framework, clichés like win-win, euphemisms like social exclusion, throwaway terms like holistic and inclusive and a host of other foggy phrases that cloud clear communication. You can find my full list of banned words here.

Also, remember to axe uncommon abbreviations and acronyms and references to obscure procedures and unknown institutions. Drafting a personalised jargon-buster helps. Just list jargon words you commonly use in the left-hand column and clear explanations for lay readers in the right.

EDIT THOROUGHLY

Your credibility depends on you being accurate with the language you use. So edit your writing carefully before publishing – whether it’s a tweet, email or brochure. Here are some ways to avoid making mistakes:

·     Reread. After you have written your first draft put it aside and think about it. Then reread.

·     Revise. Look at the big picture stuff: the lead, order of paragraphs, transitions between paragraphs. Does the writing flow? If it doesn’t, rewrite.

·     Cut any repetition, superfluous content, unnecessary words.

·     Spellcheck. But remember this tool doesn’t tell the difference between their and thereyour and you’re and god and good.

·    Ask colleagues to comment. Is there anything you’d add/take away? Are there any mistakes? If you’re not a native speaker, ask for help.

·     Repeat. Preferably by printing and reading your piece out loud.

Following these tips won’t make you a great writer but it will make you a better one. If you want to keep improving your writing, learn from the best. Read sharp journalism – for example The Economist or The Guardian, fine writers like Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell and Graham Greene and writing manuals like William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.

But above all, write. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a blog, facebook posts, poems, tweets, short stories, speeches or articles. The more you write the better you’ll write.

Gareth Harding has been a professional reporter, speechwriter, editor, journalism lecturer and media trainer for over 25 years. If you want more tips on how to write clearly, he will be running a one-day masterclass in Brussels on October 5. There’s more info here: https://cleareurope.eu/our-courses/clear-writing-training/

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About Gareth Harding

Clear Europe Managing Director and head of Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels Programme. Former journalist and speechwriter.

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