READ CHAPTER 1
How To Write Clearly
What clear writing is, what it does and how this book will help you do it.
What is clear writing?
What do you need to write?
- If you're at work, it might be an email, a presentation or a plan to explain what's happening or what you think should happen.
- If you run a company, it might be a business plan or a strategy to shape your future.
- If you’re a marketer, it might be an article or a white paper to showcase your company’s knowledge, or a marketing brochure to sell its products.
- If you're a teacher, it might be a worksheet, lesson plan or case study to get across some new facts and ideas.
- If you're a student, it might be an essay to show that you understand what you've learned.
- If you're an academic, it might be a paper presenting your findings for publication in a journal.
- And in everyday life, it might be an important email or letter to a friend, a relative or a company, or just a social-media post about your life or the lives of those close to you.
So much for the things you want to do. But they are only one side of the story. The other side is the person you’re writing for: your reader.
When we talk about ‘writing’, we think about the act of choosing words and putting them on to a page or a screen. That puts the focus on ourselves – our ideas, our decisions and our goals.
In reality, writing is a story with two sides. It’s a conversation, not a monologue. It involves both the writer and the reader. The words and ideas are what the writer puts in, but understanding and knowledge are what the reader gets out.
Writing clearly is about getting ideas out of your head and into someone else’s. The words and the page are just the tools you use to make that happen. In other words, it’s a process of communication, including both writing and reading, where two people are connected through language. You can see it in the illustration.
To make this process work, the first step is to decide what you want to say. Clear writing depends on clear thinking. If your message isn’t clear to you, it won’t be clear to anyone else.
Then you need to think carefully about your reader, and what they need from what you write. Otherwise, your writing won’t mean that much to them – if they read it at all. That’s why you have to consider the reader before you start to write.
Now, with your reader in mind, you begin to write. That means choosing the words to get your message across, as well as thinking about how much to write, how to structure it and how to present it. It also means taking the time to work on your writing until it’s as clear as you can make it. And it means thinking about how your words will appear on the page or the screen.
If you want the reader to learn, you’ll need to explain the new ideas. If you want them to remember, you’ll have to make your message stick. And if you want them to change the way they act, you’ll have to make a convincing case.
Clarity is in the mind of the reader
When you write, the reader’s response is just as important as the choices you make. The reader can only understand if you communicate, and you can only communicate if they understand. A writer who neglects their reader is like one hand clapping.
In other words, you can’t make yourself clear in isolation. You can only be clear to your reader. The measure of clarity is the reader’s understanding.
If someone doesn’t understand you, you can’t say, ‘But I explained it very clearly!’ If your message had been truly clear, they would have understood. The meaning of your communication is the response that you get.
Clarity is your responsibility, not your reader’s. You are talking, and they are listening. You’re the one who wants to get this message across, so you must put in the effort to make yourself clear. And the more thought and effort you put into your writing, the clearer your message will be in their mind.
Clear writing means easy reading
With most non-fiction writing, the reader has something they need to do, or find out, and your writing will allow them to do it. So they’re probably not reading for fun. In fact, reading your text is just another job on their to-do list.
By writing clearly, you make that job easier. You work hard so the reader doesn’t have to. As they read, nothing trips them up or gets in the way; the ideas just seem to flow from the page or screen into their mind. And because their reading experience is a positive one, they’re far more likely to learn new things, accept new ideas or change the way they act.
On the other hand, if your writing is hard to understand, your reader will wind up confused, irritated or just plain bored. Reading your words will be harder and take longer, and there’s a good chance that the reader will just give up. And whatever you wanted them to do, they probably won’t do it.
If that happens, you won’t just miss the target. You’ll actually make things worse. Before, the reader simply lacked knowledge – but now they’re actively irritated. Worst of all, you may have blown your one and only chance to reach them. That’s why clear writing is so vital: it helps you get communication right first time.
Content and context
When you write, you want to communicate your message to the reader. But they’re not just a blank slate that you can write your message on. They bring something to the party too. They have knowledge, beliefs and emotions of their own, and those things will affect how your message comes across. So a big part of writing clearly is to start where the reader is now, and talk to them – not just at them.
You can think of this as content vs. context. The content of your writing is the words you put on the page. But just as important is the context in which those words are read – who the reader is, what they know, how they feel and what’s going on for them at the time they read your message. Content is what you say, but context determines what the reader hears.
The best writing works with its context, not against it, so it has the best chance of being understood. And content that works in one context might fail in another.
For example, most young teens would have a hard time understanding an academic article on particle physics. But on the other hand, a middle-aged particle physicist might be baffled by a teenager’s Instagram feed. If you don’t know who your reader is, you can’t write clearly for them.
Context has different levels. It can include a here-and-now situation, like reading on the bus, or a broader life situation, like looking for a job. But whatever the reader has going on, in any sense, your writing needs to take account of it.
Another important part of the context is what the reader thinks about you. Their view could be based on what they think already, but it also depends on what you write. And you might need to give yourself some credibility in the reader’s eyes before they’ll listen to what you have to say.
What clear writing can do
Clear writing is a powerful tool, in work and in life. For example, you can use it to…
- Help people learn new things
- Show people how to do a task, or get a job done
- Offer advice and support to people in a new or difficult situation
- Keep people safe, or explain how they can look after themselves or others
- Help people see things differently by introducing them to new ideas and perspectives
- Express your own views or opinions so other people appreciate them
- Explain new or complex ideas, so people can get to grips with them more easily
- Make services easier to accessfor the people who need them most
- Introduce a product or a service to those who might be interested in it
- Improve the user experience of digital products, so people can use them without getting frustrated.
Clear writing is always useful in one-to-many forms of writing, like websites and articles. By writing clearly, you can make sure that as many people as possible understand your message.
However, clarity can still make a big difference when you’re writing one-to-one. For example, you might be writing a job application, or an email to try and patch up a friendship. In fact, within the context of your own life, this might be some of the most important writing you ever do.
You might not even be writing at all. For example, you could just be answering the questions of a curious child, or discussing a tricky subject with a partner or your boss. If you can get them to clearly understand your thoughts, you’re halfway home already.
As you can see, clear writing isn’t just about communicating ideas. It can be a powerful tool for growth and change. No matter what you’re doing, the clearer your message is, the easier your life will be.
Why clear writing can be hard
Clear writing sounds like it should be straightforward. You could sum it up as ‘Just say what you mean,’ or ‘Keep it simple, stupid.’ But stating the aim is one thing. Actually achieving it is something else.
First, the more complex your message, the harder it is to express it clearly. If I want you to think of an apple, I just write the word ‘apple’. But to explain how to write clearly, I had to write this whole book.
Second, language is big, messy and hard to handle. There are half a million words in the English language, and while most people only know around a tenth of those, the number of possible sentences is still effectively infinite. So whatever you want to say, there will always be a lot of ways to say it.
On top of that, language never stands still. It evolves all the time as people use it, so the same words can mean different things to different people at different times, or in different situations.
That’s why clear writing can never be an exact science – not even for the most neutral or factual message. It’s not like maths, where you can work out the one correct answer. You’ll always have to make choices, judgements and compromises, and you can never be 100% sure that your writing will work the way you want. All you can do is learn what generally works, get feedback when you can, read widely and keep working on your writing skills.
About this book
I wrote this book to do exactly what it says on the cover. My aim is to help you express yourself clearly in writing, so your reader understands exactly what you mean.
This book is meant for businesspeople, marketers, journalists, educators, students and anyone else who needs to communicate facts or ideas in writing.
When I first had the idea, I imagined that alien spacecraft had abducted every freelance writer in the world, including me. From now on, my clients would have to write their own stuff – but I had one shot at helping them out, by writing this book. What would I tell them?
I’ve aimed to make this book as accessible as I can. You don’t have to be a professional writer, a word-worshipper, a grammar guru or a bookworm. As far as I’m concerned, your writing is a job you need to do, and I’m here to help you do it.
The chapters of the book will lead you through the writing process, from planning and writing through to editing, getting feedback and design. Along the way, we’ll be looking at many ways to make your writing clear, from choosing words and crafting sentences to being more persuasive and memorable.
Throughout the book, I use the word ‘subject’ to mean the thing you’re writing about, and ‘message’ to mean whatever you want to say. I use ‘writing’ or ‘text’ to mean the actual words you choose, and ‘reader’ to mean the person or people you’re writing for.
You’ve probably already noticed that I talk about the reader a lot. Get used to it. Throughout this book, we’re going to be all over the reader like a cheap suit. We’ll be using concepts and findings from linguistics, education and psychology to get inside the reader’s head and understand how and why they might respond to what you write.
Crucially, we’ll be treating the reader with respect. We won’t think of them as a passive receiver of our message, but as a real, living person with thoughts and feelings of their own. We’ll always remember that they have a choice over how, and whether, they read our words. And we won’t assume that they will act or react in ways that we never would ourselves.
Clarity vs. poetry
At some points, you might read my advice and think, ‘But my favourite writer never does that!’ If so, please bear in mind that this book is not about creative writing. It’s only about making your message absolutely clear to your reader.
Now, fiction and poetry can do more than that. Much more. They can make words do things we don’t expect. They can evoke deep and mysterious emotions. They can take us to unknown places. They can be subtle, allusive and deliberately ambiguous. As a result, they can mean many different things to different readers.
All those things are wonderful in their place. But they are not what this book is about.
Ideas, not rules
Since every writing project is different, there’s no magic formula for clear writing that will work in every situation.
So although I’ll be sharing plenty of practical advice, you won’t find any tips, tricks, hacks, secrets, formulas or short-cuts that promise to make you a superb writer with zero effort. For me, that sort of cutting and pasting is the very opposite of learning to write.
Instead, I want you to think deeply about what writing clearly really means – in your mind, on your project, for your reader. On that foundation, you can build your own clear writing ability, which will serve you well in everything you write.
That’s why this book is more about ideas than rules. We’ll be spending just as much time on our aims, our message and our reader as on the actual hands-on writing.
Ready to get started? Then let’s dive in.