“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English―it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.”
Wise words indeed from Mark Twain but when time is of the essence, it’s easier to scrap this discipline and type your thoughts straight onto the page. The result? A gush of thoughts which overwhelm your readers.
Regardless of whether you’re writing an email, a business proposal, annual report or marketing brochure, there are 8 common principles that can transform your writing:
1. Focus & meaning
What’s the single objective of this piece of writing? Want do you want your readers to do as a result of reading your content? Do you want them to say Yes to a proposal? Take action by sharing an article? Compel them to change their behaviour in some way or sign up to a cause? Meaningful content should inform, engage or influence.
2. Never forget your reader
Always write with your reader in mind. Have you made any assumptions on knowledge through use of acronyms or technical language? Will a reader who doesn’t have English as a first language understand the words or phrases you’ve used?
Imagine you are talking to your reader. Write sincerely, personally, in a style that is suitable and with the right tone of voice.
Before you start jangling the keys on your keyboard, stop! Make a note of the points you want to make in a logical order.
It might be helpful to consider the AIDA model of marketing and the stages you want your audience to go through as they read your content:
- Firstly, capture their attention.
- Arouse their interest by making the content relevant to them.
- Create a desire to think favourably about your content.
- Finally, compel them to take action (sharing or commenting on your article, contacting you for more information etc).
Words: Why choose a long word when a short one will do? Long words will not impress your readers or help your writing style, nor will unfamiliar words. Stick to everyday language and make sure every word is serving a purpose. If not, remove it (the word ‘that’ can be deleted from most sentences without affecting the meaning). Make sure you have made good use of key search terms throughout your copy to aid SEO.
Sentences: Long sentences are difficult to read. Your key message can often get lost in them. Aim for an average of 15 to 20 words.
Paragraphs: Limit one idea per paragraph. The first sentence should be a succinct introduction to that paragraph.
White space: wherever possible, switch paragraphs to lists. The inclusion of white space helps readers to digest the content.
5. Be active
Readability is further improved by removing hidden verbs. ‘For applications to be considered…’ is much clearer than ‘If you would like consideration to be given to your application…’
Consider how sentences using active language are so much easier to understand: ‘we will deliver 25% growth next year’ v ‘25% growth will be delivered by us’.
Readers expect copy to be consistent – e.g. e-mail, email, Email, as well as tone. You should give the impression your content has been put together with thought and care by one person rather than a mishmash of entries from multiple authors.
Beware the US English spell check! (organisation v organization, centre v center). It’s not that US spellings are incorrect (much!) but they can alienate your reader.
7. Be succinct
A lot of reading is done on screen now. Research shows that readers assimilate information more quickly from a paper document (240 words per minute (wpm) than on-screen (200 wpm)). The more succinct, the better.
8. Final checks
For longer pieces, it’s helpful to leave your copy for 24 hours before editing. The following checks can help:
- Print out the document and read it out loud, slowly. Resist the temptation to skim read. If anything is unclear or if a sentence is too long, it will jar.
- Make use of the Read Aloud function on Word. It’s a great way of checking if autocorrect has created an error (eg flow v floor) or if you’ve chosen the wrong word (eg illegible v ineligible).
- Avoid distractions (people, the radio or other background noise) and read it at a time of day when you know you concentrate best.
- Look for inconsistencies in style and formatting, such as headings with different font sizes or extra spaces.
- Ask a disinterested party to read the document. Do they understand the points you’re trying to make and has your writing had the impact you intended?
Good writing is not a gift; it’s a discipline.
If you are interested in finding out more, the Plain English Campaign has a number of useful guides at https://www.plainenglish.co.uk/free-guides.html – from alternative words to tips for clear websites and business emails.