how are you?

Whether you’re writing propositional or informational communications – from advertisements and advocacies to executive summaries and board reports – the most effective way to write is from the reader’s point-of-view. Of course, it helps to know your reader more profoundly than a demographic. But in the worst case scenario, when you have no picture of who your target audience is, respect their impatience or reluctance to read your communication piece and you won’t fall into the trap of messaging. So you are about to write. Change from inside out POV (self regarding) to outside in (other regarding) and your imagination suddenly opens to new, more refreshing ways to connect and engage him or her with your story.  It’s as simple as that … theoretically. There is a small matter of a lifetime of habits to change first. Not to mention the many “house styles” or conventions of academic and corporate writing. I get a lot of that kind of writing from my students’ Individual Projects. But after all the writerly theories, lists of do’s and dont’s and tool bag of techniques have been power pointedly presented and summed up here as:

Keep sentences short

Prefer the simple to the complex

Prefer the familiar word

Avoid unnecessary words

Put action in your verbs

Write like you talk

Use terms your reader can picture

Tie in with your reader’s experience

Make full use of variety

Write to express, not impress

… most students writing doesn’t improve in simplicity, clarity or engage-ability all that much. This is when one’s learning curve turns into gestalt therapy. If that idea scares you, then we can use the simile of method acting. You put yourself in the other person’s shoes (so to speak), then you begin to see how they respond to the sentence you just wrote. I would change the metaphor of shoe to neurosis. Not in the literal sense of emotional disorder, but rather the hopes, fears, aspirations and desires that flavour their emotional and intellectual life. It’s actually not hard to do when you can admit that you too share the same neurosis. If you can do that you not only begin to transform those age old habits that keep you stuck in generic wordsmithing, but you won’t ever need to do a writing course or read another book on the “art and science of effective communication”. Because when all is said and done, the most compelling communicator is the one who knows his audience like he or she knows them self, neuroses and all. With that as your focus, your writing becomes “effective”. This means your writing anticipates, shapes and satisfies a reader’s intellectual and/or emotional needs for data, information, knowledge and/or insight. At the same time, it implicitly assures the reader that he or she is in good hands, in other words, you’ve got trustworthiness.

Now let’s revisit those ten principles of clear writing mentioned earlier. This time with a turned mind view.

Keep sentences short

Never take this literally. If all your sentences are short, your writing will sound bossy at best, aggressive at worst. Even Hemingway wrote long sentences like: “Decadence is a difficult word to use since it has become little more than a term of abuse applied by critics to anything they do not yet understand or which seems to differ from their moral concepts” (Death in the Afternoon; Chapter 7). Clearly, long sentences written well can feel just as short as a short sentence written dogmatically. What this principle is asking you to do is make sentences feel short.

Prefer the simple to the complex

This principle already has a built-in reader point-of-view by urging you to consider how your reader will receive the words that express your idea or knowledge. Why write “modification and utilization” when you can write “change and use”? Unconscious use of complexity is a habit we need to overcome.

Prefer the familiar word

This principle also asks you to be mindful of your reader. Vocabulary is used to give clear, exact meaning, not to show off.

Avoid unnecessary words

One sure method of making sure every word you write justifies its existence is to read the draft out aloud. The very sound of your written expression will detach you from “your baby” and you’ll hear it as your target audience will.

Put action in your verbs

This is an all time favourite of every writing course and book. But, like the “keep your sentences short” rule, it can be misunderstood. If we dogmatically make every sentence active, the whole draft runs the risk of sounding too action packed with not a breather or a rest in sight. The result can be exhaustion on the part of the reader. Those rests and breathers often come in the form of passive sentences. Yes, breathe life into your sentences (active verbs do a good job of that) but also modulate the rhythm with softer, quieter moments (passive verbs are nice for that).

Write like you talk

Grammarians would insist this is poor grammar and should be written as “write as you talk”. But that contradicts the rule “write like you talk”. Grammar aside, this rule is asking you to have a genuine dialogue with your audience. A dialogue involves at least two people, and this is also true of writing, except that you have to imagine the other, and how they would respond, as you compose each sentence. It’s the best use of your imagination, and produces the most satisfying end result.

Use terms your reader can picture

Or hear. Or taste. Or feel. Or smell. This rule includes all 5 senses, it just depends on the subject matter. Food involves taste and smell. Music involves feeling and hearing. But pictures is arguably the most dominant narrative. By replacing abstract words with concrete words or phrases, you actually enter the mind of your audience and direct their senses in a way similar to a film director directing light, sound and action.

Tie in with your reader’s experience

It isn’t enough to write so you will be understood. You need to write so you can’t be misunderstood. So you must be clear of both your objective and the reader’s. If these objectives differ, then find the common ground. Think: Where are they coming from? Where do they stand on such and such? Where can we meet half-way? This is when the saying, “put yourself in their shoes” becomes a really handy tip.

Make full use of variety

Please don’t bore your audience. Use enough variety of sentence lengths, evocations of the senses, active and passive phrases, vocabulary so that the only thing noticeable is the clarity and simplicity of your communication piece.

Write to express, not impress

No writing is easy, but we make it even harder when we’re trying to prove something about writerly skills. Take your mind off your ego and redirect it to your audience. Ask yourself and your imagined audience: “Is what you’ve written expressed clearly so that there is no misunderstanding?” If the answers are “yes” and “yes”, then you can call yourself a professional communicator.

57 Comments

  1. Melissa says:

    These tips are great. I really like the idea of thinking about your writing as a conversation with the reader. I have a lot of research to do on my target audience so I know this is an accurate conversation!
    Reading the copy aloud to make sure it sounds conversational is another great tip.

  2. Karl says:

    I like the ‘Use terms your readers can picture’ rule. If I could make every reader come alive to their sensations and emotions just from reading my copy, I feel I would have achieved more than simply causing them to ‘think’

  3. Helen says:

    Great 10 tips. A key message for me is to think less about what I want to say and more about what the reader will want to hear

  4. Christopher says:

    I like the article, short to the point.

  5. Melanie says:

    Great article – particularly with reference to keeping this simple and writing with the clear purpose of making it super easy for your reader to understand. This even applies to the basic principles of marketing – providing a solution to meet a distinct need of the consumer as opposed to providing something you think they should buy or use.

  6. Simon Carr says:

    I always try and read my work allowed, because as you point out its a great way of highlighting the excess in a sentience. I now just need to adopt the other points as a default. NB I wrote this on the train, and was therefore deprived of the opportunity to read it allowed -so that explains any excess, and or any other faults

  7. Alex D says:

    Letting go of strict grammar or formal/academic writing is difficult after years spent in uni or work communicating in this way and requires a rethink of your relationship with the written word. ‘Write like you talk’ is a useful sentence to have in mind when overcoming the desire to return to instilled writing habits.

  8. Rebecca Loxton says:

    “Because when all is said and done, the most compelling communicator is the one who knows his audience like he or she knows them self, neuroses and all.” I liked this article so much I printed it out and stuck it in my notes! This quote sums it up for me – the key to being a great copywriter is in recognising our relatedness to all other human beings. Or as it’s been said many times before, Empathy is All. If we take the time to genuinely understand our target audience and put ourselves in their shoes, we are going to be much more likely to connect with them through our writing.

  9. Jessie L says:

    The checklist is a fantastic guide. I particularly like the preference of simple over complex words. I’ve wasted too many hours trying to read rubbish that has left me feeling confused and numb.

  10. Alexandra says:

    Key takeaway here for me is ‘don’t be misunderstood’. I’m prone to writing in a way that means one thing to me — and is crystal clear — but means something slightly different to a reader. And then blaming the reader.

    I’m now more aware that it’s my job not to be misunderstood. Further, if I’m forgetting, over-estimating or neglecting the reader as I write, I’m ignoring the cardinal rule: empathy.

  11. Richard C says:

    Great checklist to help re-educate and program myself.

  12. M. Soan says:

    Great advice, much of which applies to fiction writing – showing not telling, varying sentence lengths, phrases, and words to create effective rhythm, and making sure that concrete words are used over the abstract. I like the advice of making sentences feel shorter, being concise, putting yourself in the others shoes, and trying to express rather than impress – or in my case I have an unconscious tendency to focus too much on whether the sentence sounds nice rather than concentrating on whether the message was effectively delivered.

  13. Colette Easdown says:

    The key message is “effective writing.” We can all write, but was our communication on message? Did we reach our target audience? It pays to reflect on how effective the message will be post completion. Thank you for giving me pause to think before submitting.

  14. Georgina Rychner says:

    This is a really helpful checklist to keep in mind when writing. The most important things I need to remember is to express not impress, stick to active voice and to be concise. I write fiction so aiming to focus less on the ‘wordiness’ and more on clear communication is key!

  15. Julie Wood says:

    A great top 10 list to help keep the writer on track. I particularly like the concept of ‘writing so you can’t be misunderstood’.

  16. Katie says:

    I think the only way I will keep remembering to write from the reader’s perspective is to write a big sign saying just that as a constant reminder. It’s easy to get carried away while writing and forget this extremely important advice.

  17. Kirby Fenwick says:

    The most salient point for me, is to respect the audiences impatience or reluctance. With that it mind, keeping it simple, using familiar words, writing as you speak and creating vivid pictures are sound strategies.
    I also like the notion that you should write so that you are not misunderstood, the focus on making yourself understood can often detract from the idea to keep it simple, straightforward and to the point.

  18. Vishaal Mody says:

    Regarding the last point – ‘write to express, not impress’ – shouldn’t it be a combination of the two, because the aim is to impress/attract/convince your target audience through the expression of words and images?

    • My point was about taking the ego out of your writing but you’re right in that your writing has to make a positive impression. That’s a new and valuable take on that principal.

  19. Renee B says:

    And again keep it simple, but think about why you are writing and who you are writing for – I think we can forget this in the rush to finish tasks before deadline

    • So true Renee. If you don’t have time, then make time by writing over your lunch break or on the train to work or while you’re making tea. I was told recently of a teacher who wrote a book while counseling a student while reciting the lines of a poem to his class. He had many books published.

  20. Lucy says:

    I can really see how it is going to be easy to fall into the old habits of writing, and forget about the target audience and effective copy. This is going to be a challenge. Looks like a good set of “flexible rules” to follow.

  21. Kat says:

    Two things really stand out to me here – the first is ‘prefer the simple to the complex.’ It’s so easy to throw around big words and elaborate terms when writing technical copy. They’re a bit of a crutch because using them means we don’t need to figure out how to say something in a simpler (more engaging) way.

    And that ties into your final point, that we should write the express, not impress. There’s a risk of patting yourself on the back for being so clever (or trying to be) when actually, the reader’s already switched off and moved onto something else because your supposed cleverness didn’t have any impact on them.

  22. Not to mention (again) the rest of the reader’s wardrobe too:)

  23. Nicole Sykes says:

    Really enjoyed the article Nicholas. These 10 points will come in handy for when I am writing, especially putting myself in my readers shoes and using less words.

  24. Carinda Palmer says:

    Great article… lots of good points that I will attempt to put in practice whilst wearing my readers shoes!

  25. Hannah says:

    The problem in my writing is I tend to combine a number of these errors like writing to impress which tends to lead to it being more complex. Great reminder that concise writing is far more effective.

    • NICOLAS says:

      A quick fix here Hannah would be to plan what you’re going to say before you say it. Jot down the points. Short list them. Arrange them in narrative logic (there will be a post on that coming soon). Then write them into prose using transitionals (see post on “smoothing content”) to weave them together seamlessly.

  26. Michael says:

    Great tips Nicolas. I often play that trick of reading my own words from the outside but sometimes to my own detriment. I end up writing a sentence, reading it, dissing it and then rewriting it, over and over! It can be maddening. One has to back themselves at some point and quit critiquing. As you say, write to express and not to impress.

  27. NICOLAS says:

    Good question about mixing actives and passives Appu. Here’s an example:

    You read the blog post. You had a wake-up call. You wrote a comment. (3 ACTIVE SENTENCES) But the paragraph on mixing active and passive verbs left you wanting to see an example of this. (PASSIVE)

    Does this help?

    • Appu says:

      Yes it does. I was going to say good example but then I do have a conflict of interest regarding the subject! Thanks for clarifying ‘Put action in your verbs’.

  28. Appu says:

    Thought it was an interesting point about keeping sentences short. At first looking at the initial list, thought it meant shorter sentences always preferred to longer sentences. However, reading on to the Hemingway example, realised that the main thing/objective is not for the reader to have to struggle through a sentence. It should be a breeze for the reader to get through sentences (i.e “make sentences feel short”)

    With the ‘Put action in your verbs” , I understand from reading the post that mixing in active and passive words is preferred to rather all active words so that the reader can get a “breather”. However, not too clear on how to go about this in practice. Is there an example that you can share with us? (Similar to the Hemingway example for the ‘Keep sentences short’)

    The last point was a wake-up call about writing to communicate rather than to impress. I guess sometimes I look to or wait for validation/acknowledgement that I have written well. But perhaps it is better to be initially satisfied by answering yes to those two questions posed 1)expressed clearly? and 2)no misunderstanding? Rather than writing to impress someone and the message not even getting through.

  29. Gillian Goller says:

    Your list of 10 of what not to do gave me a laugh. Your simile of ‘method acting’ really appealed. Also really liked the idea to include all five senses, build pictures, get into the reader’s mind and direct. Writing effective copy is not easy, if it was everyone would be doing it.

  30. Leona Devaz says:

    I love the idea of putting yourself into the reader’s shoes. The idea of ‘method acting’ when it comes to copywriting is a great analogy for me and provided that lightbulb moment to get into the reader’s head.

  31. Coreen says:

    It can be all to easy to get swept up in what you want to say rather than looking at, listening to and understanding the person you’re talking to when it comes to writing. Most of us can instantly recognise when we’re being ‘marketed at’ rather than spoken to and have the innate ability to block it out before it even registers as a blip on our radar.

  32. michaelcxs says:

    For me, the key point here is empathy: addressing the audience and persuading them to read on while understanding their reluctance.

  33. Jen Keating says:

    Ego is both a friend and a foe to a writer, it serves as motivation and assists with rejection. However if it inhabits a piece an audience can be left cold. Turning one’s mind to the persepective of the reader requires leaving ego at the door. Creating compelling copy becomes less about the writer and more about the reader.

  34. Felicity says:

    I enjoy the point “write like you talk” as communication will always be more effective when it is a conversation not a pushed message, I do however also agree with the comments above that this communication will only be successful if you know ‘who’ you are talking to. Knowing your target audience and simplifying the messages for them is a sure fire way to get the message across.

  35. Anna says:

    I love the idea of method acting and putting yourself in your target audiences’ shoes. It’s also a good test – because if you find it difficult – then you need to do more research on your target audience.

  36. Jennie says:

    I agree that you should write conversational, or ‘as you talk’, but I believe you also need to consider the audience in which you are talking to. There’s no good someone in their 20s writing copy for dentures in the tone of how they’d talk to their friends. This also relates to using familiar words, as vocabularies of different demographics vary considerably, like someone in their 20s and someone who wears dentures! I’ve found the list of techniques extremely useful to read through, it makes you assess your writing throughout each sentence and really question if it’s right!

  37. Sophie says:

    Yes, i totally get caught up in trying to impress an audience with wording! Genuine dialogue gets through so much better and is so much more simpler. Good mantra to have: ‘express, not impress’

  38. Jeremy G says:

    After I finished reading this blog post a certain acronym popped into my head which, in my mind, could be an umbrella that these principles sit under – K.I.S.S. “Keep It Simple Stupid”.
    I think back to the many assignments I have written where I thought it was necessary to complicate sentences with words such as utilisation and modification instead of use and change. The messages I was communicating would have been received clearly and concisely I had just “kept it simple”. Stupid me… 🙂

  39. Rebecca says:

    I’ve even written Facebook statuses that were completely misunderstood by close friends because I was (as you do on Facebook!) writing so directly from MY brain, rather than considering the other possible meanings readers could have drawn from what I wrote. This comment is already too long and wordy, so I’m doing it again, but possibly my biggest struggle with my writing is that my message is lost in my words, rather than being communicated by them.

  40. Bronwen says:

    To write effectively you need to build a relationship with your audience, to ensure that effective and efficent style of language is used – keep it simple and familar so they feel comfortable. Resist the temptation to over complicate.

  41. Caitlin says:

    Don’t try to overcomplicate your writing with words and detail, your reader needs to understand what you are saying.

  42. “Write so you can’t be misunderstood”, what a great tip. I used to write to impress, now I’ll express instead.

  43. J. Walden says:

    These principles are as relevant to fiction writing as copy. Every ‘great American’ novelist, from Hemmingway to Yates to Steinbeck seemed to follow them. In fact, pulitzer prize and nobel prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, holds each of these rules as law. And the result is a snap shot of time, place and persona that no other art form could capture.

  44. melaniehyde says:

    I think it’s important to have someone who is part of the target market proofread your work, as they can provide insight.

  45. melaniehyde says:

    These techniques are quite good to reference after I finish writing and begin proofing, as I know worrying about technique can limit me from letting my creativity flow when begining to write. However, come proofing stage, they will really help me ‘cut the crap’ and edit until my message is clear and concise, without any extra ‘fluff’.
    I will keep these techniques close!

  46. Natalia says:

    Very true indeed! To be able to ‘put yourself in the readers shoes’ is an important ingredient in connecting with the target audience. Also being able to ‘tie in to the readers experience’ and ‘finding the common ground’ is vital. This can be challenging as different demographics have varying views and opinions. If there is no connection with the target audience, there is a high probability the message could be misunderstood or glossed over.

  47. Mark . T says:

    The ability to communicate my copy to an audience has been a learning curve, the 10 principles of clear writing diffidently hit some nerves, as i have in the past expressed knowledge in a complicated and long winded way, the only audience that was captivated by it was me, the lesson learnt – “summarise, get to the point, and write to express not to impress”. Write as if i am reading it for the first time, and reading it aloud shows anything out of place

  48. Jeff Hyde says:

    Yes, I’ve certainly been guilty of having written something that I, personally, have clearly understood only to find out later that my target audience has misunderstood the message. In my case I was probably too close to the subject matter and failed to realise that my target audience lacked the same level of background knowledge on the subject.
    I do like the tip on reading the draft aloud. Maybe having another read the draft back to you could be even more effective. Either technique would be a great way to “road test” each draft to clearly identify design faults and reduce the risk of being misunderstood.

  49. Miles B says:

    I think that experiencing your own writing from your reader’s POV is one of the most important things that a writer can do. It is easily overlooked – and not just in the field of writing. Have you used a consumer product that was just difficult to use? It happens all the time. Obviously, no one in the development process experienced using the product under real conditions. This was one of the key elements of Steve Jobs’s genius – the user experience was paramount for him. He simplified and simplified and made Apple products fun and cool and easy to use. These same principles should be applied to commercial writing.

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