Writing Clearly Requires Thinking Clearly
Whether you’re responsible for communicating with colleagues in your organization, stakeholders who share your interests, or members of the public, chances are you often communicate via the written word, using email, reports, white papers, press releases, advertising copy and even text messages to share your ideas.
The key to good writing is to pare away unnecessary information until you are left with only the essentials—the words and ideas that lead your audience down a clear path toward your goal.
Before you start paring, be sure to capture all your key ideas. Create a “sloppy copy” (to borrow a phrase from a wonderful fourth-grade teacher named Johanna Lopez). Get your thoughts down on paper without worrying about how you will organize them.
Then, consider your audience. Frame the key ideas from your sloppy copy in a way that puts your readers’ interests first (e.g., instead of listing your services, explain how your services pertain to your readers–how do you help them? What problems do you solve for them? How does your message relate to them?).
Be sure you’ve thought about how you want people to respond to your message, and include enough information so they can. If you want people to take action, tell them what you want them to do. And if you want them to visit your website, be sure to include the URL. Sounds basic, I know, but it’s amazing how often people miss the easy stuff.
Now that you’ve identified your key ideas and framed them so your audience will find your message relevant, it’s time to organize and distill.
First, organize. What information must you provide so people can receive the full impact of your message? Have you defined terms? Does your audience need the backstory? It’s best if you can carry people along step-by-step. Finding a way to tell a compelling story can help people do more than understand, it can help them care about your message.
Finding a way to tell a compelling story can help people do more than understand, it can help them care about your message.
Once you’ve created your story, remove superfluous words and phrases. Here are a few ways to do so:
Use active voice (e.g., Say, “She threw the ball” rather than, “The ball was thrown by her.”).
Remove redundancies. Usually, you are not driving your point home; you’re boring people.
Watch your modifiers. Replace phrases with words and use the simplest, most powerful modifier you can. Instead of saying, “Bill Clinton, who used to be the President…,” say “Former President Bill Clinton…” Scan your document for the word “very.” If you find it, you haven’t used a strong enough descriptor. Replace “very hungry” with “famished;” replace “very angry” with “livid.” You get the idea. You can always replace “in order to” with simply “to.”
Sometimes the problem isn’t the writing—it’s the thinking. Let’s take something as simple as an email to employees about keeping the breakroom refrigerator clean. You could write something like this:
It has come to my attention that food is getting left in the refrigerator to spoil. Having a refrigerator is a perk provided by our organization, but if people keep leaving old food in it, the fridge will be removed. Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Sounds pretty snarky to me. If you write an email like this, my guess is you’ll get eye-rolling from some and righteous indignation from those who always remove their food in a timely manner. Truth is, no one wants to read a message like this. If your goal is for people use the refrigerator respectfully, then solve the problem and then rewrite the email. How about this?
I’ve placed masking tape and a Sharpie on the counter next to the breakroom refrigerator. Please put your name and the date on any food you put in the fridge. Each Friday, we’ll check the dates. Any food from the prior week will be discarded to avoid spoilage.
If your thinking is muddled or ill-defined, your writing will be too. If you don’t have a point to make, no amount of fancy writing will make up for that. If you find you’re having a hard time writing, it may be that you haven’t done enough thinking. Stop writing. Push away from your computer and ask yourself, “What exactly am I trying to say?”
If you’d like help figuring out what you’re trying to say, get in touch. There’s nothing like an objective sounding board to get you back on track.