How to write clearly

Why do we write? Or, more specifically, why do we write for an audience?

Whether we’re trying to persuade, to entertain, to inform, or to challenge, there’s almost always a point or a purpose.

Maybe it’s to convince readers to try something new, to trust us, to hire us; maybe we want them to understand how something happened, or consider a point of view; perhaps we simply want them to laugh, to cry, to ponder.

Whatever the point, it needs to be evident or we lose the reader – no matter how lyrical, witty, or impassioned our prose.

Reading unfocussed writing is like listening to a poorly tuned radio: you have to work hard to hear the news, get the joke, or enjoy the song; more likely, you’ll just switch off. And in a world saturated with media noise, the clearer you can make your point, the better chance it has of being received.

One of the best ways to make this happen is to hire an editor. Apart from the benefit of fresh eyes on your work, an editor has skills to help you communicate effectively – and you’ll often pick up some great writing tips along the way.

Here are some tips I regularly offer to writers to help focus their message:

Distil it – Summarise your piece (be it book or one-pager) in a sentence or, at most, a paragraph.

Distil it – Summarise your piece (be it book or one-pager) in a sentence or, at most, a paragraph. This can take time, but it’s worth it. I often spend what seems a disproportionate number of hours writing and rewriting just to clarify my ideas. It helps me to head the page with “What am I trying to say?”

Keep it focussed – Constantly refer back to your distilled message. Does every sentence help build your story towards it? Cut digressions and distractions.

De-clutter your text – Keep it simple. Too much detail or description often muddies your point. Read your work aloud: are you stumbling over sentences? Does removing a word or three help it flow better? Can you remove a word without affecting the meaning? If yes, let it go.

Take the “so what?” test – Picture two 18-year-olds applying for a job. One writes, “I worked at McDonalds for two years”; the other writes, “Working at McDonalds, I developed strong customer service and teamwork skills”. Both candidates hit the ball; only one makes a run – by highlighting the relevance of working at McDonalds.

Now imagine yourself as a reader of your own writing. Read your work through that person’s eyes. Are there elements to which they might respond “so what?” – statements that go nowhere, or where the implications are assumed rather than explicitly stated? How can you get those statements to make runs? (Or are they better left on the bench?)

Saying what you mean can be harder than it sounds. I hope these tips help (and if they’re not enough, you could always hire an editor…)

May your words pour onto the page,