One of the key elements of effective communications is clarity. Your persuasiveness, accuracy or interesting subject matter cannot achieve your objectives if the audience is struggling to understand your message. Below are 10 principles for creating understandable copy:
1. Use Short Active Verbs
Simple words get your point across more quickly than complex words, and using the active voice makes it obvious who did what to whom (or what). Additionally, simple words and the active voice make your text direct and concise, which means it will be easily understood.
Example: It runs like a well-oiled machine (simple verb, active voice) works better than it operates like a well-oiled machine (more complex verb) or it is run like a well-oiled machine (passive voice).
2. Be Concise
Unnecessary words dilute the meaning of your message, so read through your drafts in order to look for sentences or words that are redundant (needlessly repetitive) or otherwise not required.
In the phrase connect together, the word together is redundant.
The expression at this point in time can be replaced with the word now.
Another example are these two sentences: Henry is not like William. Henry takes more risks. They can be combined into one: Henry takes more risks than William.
Note: Being concise does not mean that all your sentences must be brief. A sentence without unnecessary words can still be relatively lengthy, and an interesting text typically has a variety of sentence lengths. As a rule, aim for an average sentence length of 12-25 words.
3. Be Specific
The more specific you are, the more likely people are to understand you. Example: Senior vice president says more than top executive.
4. Use Familiar Words
Acronyms and jargon are communication shortcuts. But they aren’t effective unless the majority of readers understand your references, so only use them if you think at least 95 percent of your audience will understand them.
5. Provide Context
When you know a subject really well, it’s easy to forget that most of your readers don’t have access to the same information. Keep in mind that every message needs a context in order to be clearly communicated:
- How much background knowledge about your subject does your audience have? Given the purpose of your message, what information should you give them?
- If your message contains photos or illustrations, are they clearly related to your subject via placement and captions?
6. Watch for Misplaced Phrases
The placement of phrases can obscure or clarify the meaning of your sentence.
Example: Having been a member of the association for decades, I believe that Mr. Smith deserves to be named emeritus.
In the sentence above, does the phrase having been a member of the association for decades refer to the writer or to Mr. Smith?
By comparison, this revised sentence is much clearer: I believe that Mr. Smith, having been a member of the association for decades, deserves to be named emeritus.
7. Organize Your Text
Make sure that your copy is organized in a way that allows your audience to progress smoothly from point A to point B, and on to point C.
According to Crawford Killian, author of Writing for the Web, you can make the order chronological or narrative (as in a story progression), logical or categorical (arranging points into specific groupings). The Purdue Online Writing Lab suggests first giving readers information they already know so that they can link it to new information as they progress through your text (if you use this tactic, you’ll have to be careful that your old information does not weigh down the pace and clarity of your copy by becoming “throat clearing”). Other options include spatial (using geographical location or physical size), cause and effect, problem and solution, compare and contrast, order of importance or step-by-step instructions.
Use outlines to help you decide the best way to order your material.
8. Make Sure Your Points Always Support Your Position
Everything you include in your piece (or website) should reinforce your main message. These can include testimonials, study results, guarantees, comparisons, observations or just details about your product or service.
9. Pay Attention to Commas
Missing or superfluous commas can change the meaning of a sentence. Example: Originally selected students… has a different meaning than Originally, selected students…
10. Tell Readers What to Do
Often we send out perfectly-written, persuasive text, but we forget to tell people what to do. Most people are busy and distracted; they might not be sure what’s expected of them unless you tell them. If you want them to write, call, remember your products or expect your call, then say so.
I’ve given you 10 principles to help you cut through ambiguity and reach the heart and mind of your reader. In addition, I recommend that you read Elements of Style, one of the most famous American English writing style guides in existence at least once. In it, the authors write, “… a badly worded road sign … a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter … think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguity … When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.”