If you are writing non-fiction, clarity counts most. Here are four tips to write clearly.
Before sharing my incredibly useful tips with you, I must begin with two huge caveats.
First, fiction is not like non-fiction. In fiction, the mood is sometimes more important than the facts. But even in fiction, clarity counts. If your readers can’t follow the story well enough, they will get discouraged.
And, even hitting just the right mood, your story will fall flat if they just don’t get it.
Second, clarity is not always the most important aspect of non-fiction writing. For example, you might consider accuracy to be most important. But you can be technically accurate and misunderstood. Sometimes you have to be inaccurate in order to be correctly understood.
The question is this: is it more important (for legal reasons, perhaps) to be accurate, or is it more important for practical reasons that your readers understand? Sometimes, clarity is more accurate than accuracy.
So, what’s most important?
Clarity versus readability
This blog post is not about the debate between accuracy and clarity. It’s about the debate between readability and clarity.
Far too many people get hooked far too easily on data these days. It’s all a numbers game. Or is it?
Numbers are amazing. They tell us things we wouldn’t know without them. They help us see the big picture – the forest – when we would otherwise see only trees. They help us see trends. They help us compare things that might not be obvious.
And they make us lazy.
It’s so easy to look at the numbers, that we sometimes forget to think. Quantity is important, but so is quality.
By “quality”, I don’t just mean where something is on a scale (from bad to good, from fragile to sturdy, from cheap to expensive). Those are still just numbers. By “quality”, I mean “characteristic”. Every thing has certain qualities, and those cannot always be measured.
Readability scores are also just numbers. They can tell you how “readable” your writing is, but they run on an algorithm. I could write an amazingly readable paragraph of absolute gibberish.
Don’t be shy to use readability tools to measure your writing. But avoid the temptation to rely on them at all costs.
Here are four strategies to write clearer. Two of them will also boost readability. But two of them won’t…and sometimes they might even reduce readability.
1. Shorten your sentences and paragraphs
Two manuscripts. Each has 10,000 words. One has 80 paragraphs; the other has 200 paragraphs.
Which one do you think looks easier to read? Which one will more people start reading? Which one will keep more people reading? Which one will engage people more, reach more people and have more impact?
Same two manuscripts. Each has 10,000 words. One has 300 sentences; the other has 700 sentences.
Same questions. Which one will look easier to read? Which one will more people start reading? Which one will keep more people reading? Which one will engage people more, reach more people and have more impact?
The answer is the same. The one with more paragraphs and more sentences will win out every time, because those sentences and paragraphs are shorter.
Everyone reads more and reads better when sentences and paragraphs are shorter. That applies to plumbers, to architects, to shopkeepers, to lawyers and to artists. We all get your message better when you break it into bite-sized morsels.
Even writers prefer short sentences when they aren’t reading for pleasure.
2. Use more lists
Among the worst types of sentences that most entangle your readers are those with lists in them. Short lists of simple words aren’t too bad. For instance:
They wanted to make room for all vehicles, including cars, buses, trucks and bicycles.
OK, we can live with that. But longer lists, or lists with several complex terms, can really slow readers down. For instance:
The Multistakeholder Advisory Committee on Temporal Dynamics in Post-modern Social Structures produced the Temporal Dynamics in Quantum Relativity Special Report, the Updated Database Compilation Annual Progress Report, The Fourth Annual Review of Published Studies on the Variability of Meteorological and Geophysical Indicators, and Effects of Temporal Astrophysics on the Morbidity of Subtropical Amphibian Populations.
Yes, I exaggerate to make a point. These list sentences can throw readers off their rhythm. They make readers work harder. Some readers will stop reading. Others will keep reading, but you’ll still have lost them as their eyes glaze over.
If it’s a list:
- Make it a list.
- Take it out of the sentence.
- Put bullet points in front of each item.
- Breathe easier, because your readers can read easier.
But be careful. A list can be an “and” list or an “or” list. Sometimes the context makes it clear. Sometimes, you have to add the clarity by hand.
3. Choose the right word…even if it’s not the simplest
Thanks to the popularity of readability scores, it’s tempting to pick the shortest word, the one with the fewest syllables. That’s how readability tools measure your text. But sometimes the simplest word is not the clearest.
The word “hard” has many meanings. Sometimes “durable” or “difficult” are much clearer, even if they have two extra syllables.
The word “stuff” might be shorter than “equipment”, but it’s not as clear. The word “machine” might also be shorter, but what if the equipment isn’t all machines?
“AI” is so much shorter than “artificial intelligence”, but it might not be clear to all audiences. In fact, some people might not understand either term. So it is vital to know your audience, and make sure that everyone can understand what you write.
4. Choose the words your audience will understand
Even if all audiences understand, not all audiences will understand the same thing. For instance, epidemiologists will understand what a vector is that spreads Zika or Malaria. Most other people will simply understand that you can catch the disease by a mosquito bite.
A bite! There is a prime example of writing something inaccurate to be understood (mosquitoes don’t actually bite).
Quite apart form education levels, this vector/bite issue is due to specialization. People simply know more about their own field.
Multicultural audiences might not get all the cute colloquialisms, either. “A dime a dozen” and “on the ball” might be good simple phrases that boost readability. But some audiences might take them literally. If the audience doesn’t get them – and get them right – they reduce clarity.
Think also about age and gender. There are so many words that we use differently these days, and my elderly mother won’t understand them. Or, more likely, she will misunderstand them.
And the differences in how men and women think are legion!
Focus on your audience. Focus on your message. Make sure that the words you use are the ones your audience will understand, in order to read your message.
Your audience and your message are two dots. As a writer, your job is to connect the dots.
The golden rule of communications applies to your writing. Communications is never about what you say. It’s about what your audience understands.