11 easy ways to write more clearly

Regardless of your audience, you can help readers grasp and retain your message. Try these techniques.


If you’re like me, you probably write posts or press releases, and then proofread them and wonder what in the world you were thinking when you wrote them.

We can always improve the readability of our copy.

Ann Wylie of Wylie Communications cites the book “What Makes a Book Readable” by William S. Gray and Bernice Leary to describe the four aspects of readability:

  • Content
  • Style
  • Design
  • Organization

I want to use this framework to offer some best practices to improve the readability of your copy:

Content

Wylie describes content as “arguments, structure and coherence.” For PR copy, this has a few facets: What, where and why you are writing all influence how you’ll structure your copy.

1. Let the platform dictate (some) structure.

Though most people use the introduction/body/conclusion structure to organize their copy, platforms can dictate what you say where. A good example would be Twitter, where you’re limited to 140 characters—though your goal should be fewer than 110 if you want to be retweeted. Also, you can include more information in an email pitch to a journalist than in a phone message.

There are times when you shouldn’t adjust your copy to a platform. For example: bloviated press releases. If the same information were in an email pitch or social media pitch it might be pared down and tailored to the audience, but occasionally press releases end up more robust than necessary. (You’ve probably never seen this, though.)

Download the free white paper, “How to be a brand journalist,” to learn how to tell your organization’s compelling stories.

2. Make thoughtful transitions between ideas.

Often, when we’re aiming for brevity, we sacrifice our ideas’ cohesiveness. English professor Daniel Kies describes techniques to make your transitions more cohesive:

  • Repetition. Repeat words from one sentence to another.
  • Synonymy. Rather than repeating a specific word, use a synonym to your anchor word in the transition sentence.
  • Antonymy. Transition using an opposite word (antonym) to the anchoring word of your first idea.
  • Pro-forms. Use a pronoun or other pro-form to reference your anchoring word.
  • Collocation. Utilize a word that is commonly paired with your anchor word in your transition sentence.
  • Enumeration. Use markers (such as the numbering system in this post) to transition between ideas.
  • Parallelism. Repeat a sentence structure.
  • Transitions. Use a conjunctions (because, and, but, so, or) to connect sentences or ideas.

Style

Style (in the context of readability) is your word and sentence choice. There is a lot of advice about this. In “10 Rules of Writing,” Elmore Leonard expresses strong feelings about style:

  • Rule 3: Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  • Rule 4: Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

What Leonard is trying to convey is that readers recognize it when you’re using superfluous language. Journalists understand this, as well.

3. Write your copy for seventh-grade readers.

The more sophisticated your writing, the less accessible it is. One thing I love about my Kindle is the ability it affords readers to look up words with its built-in dictionary. If I come across a five-dollar word in your press release, though, I’ll probably skip over it, and it may turn me off to the entire document.

The Readability test tool analyzes your writing to determine how accessible it is. It also calculates readability using a host of popular algorithms:

4. Use easy words.

According to Wylie, one of the best ways to improve your copy’s readability is to use smaller words. She says, “The more easy words you use, the easier your message becomes to read.”

One commonality of the reading equivalency algorithms is looking at syllables. When trying to improve readability, look for and eliminate five-dollar words.

5. Use shorter sentences.

When looking at the reading equivalency algorithms, another commonality is sentence length. Break up compound sentences, and eliminate superfluous or redundant ideas.

The Enago blog also writes that using a combination of short, medium and long sentences keeps a reader’s attention for longer periods. Matthew Stibbe of Articulate Marketing puts it more succinctly when he writes:

“Short sentences rule.”

6. Use fewer adjectives and adverbs.

Channeling Elmore Leonard: Consider whether your adjectives or adverbs are necessary. You’ll be surprised how often they are not.

7. Use less jargon.

Even if your jargon-y words don’t contain a lot of syllables, they will probably confuse your intended audience and undermine your message. Avoid jargon.

8. Check for proper grammar and spelling.

Andrew Schrage of Money Crashers says this about PR copy: “Make sure your pitch is grammatically correct, or you’ll instantly lose credibility.”

Especially if you’re pitching journalists and writers, poor grammar or misspelled copy is going to be an easy discriminator for your readers. This is a nearly universal peeve among journalists.

Design

Design can include a few aspects, but I want to focus on typography. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, typography has a lot to do with how readable digital text is.

9. Check the size of your email fonts for mobile devices.

Most email gets opened on a mobile device. Consider this thought experiment: You prepare the perfect email pitch. You do your research, you are succinct, and you are offering exclusive information to a journalist who writes specifically about your topic. You send the pitch, but the email font is too small, so it gets deleted-along with your hopes and aspirations.

I’m exaggerating, but hopefully I made the point that mobile readability is an important consideration.

Jamie Appleseed of the Baymard Institute suggests a maximum of 50 characters per line in mobile-optimized email. Matthew Stibbe suggests simply to “use bigger fonts.”

10. Don’t get fancy with your fonts.

The Papyrus font makes me eyes (figuratively) bleed. I used to work with an HR manager who wrote emails entirely in Papyrus. There are a lot of objectionable fonts out there, and there are a lot of very readable fonts as well. Arial, Helvetica, Times New Roman, Open Sans and others are known for their readability. Don’t overthink fonts. Differentiate yourself with substance, not style.

The same holds true for other aspects of digital communication: backgrounds, colors and images make your communication conspicuous in a negative light.

Organization

11. Use structural elements in your writing.

Strong business writers use bullet points, numbered lists, headings, italics and bold lettering. All can make your writing more readable.

Cyrus Shepard of Moz shows that structured content is read and shared on magnitudes of 100 more than traditionally rendered copy. He posits that because readers skim a lot of documents, structural elements are useful for this purpose.

Conclusion

There are small things you can do to improve your copy’s readability. These include transitions, word selection and mobile optimization and structure. By making your copy more readable, you can communicate more effectively.

Jim Dougherty blogs at LeadersWest. A version of this article originally appeared on Cision’s blog.

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