Five Steps to Writing Clearly
To our readers, our writing defines us. It tells them whether we are intelligent, educated, professional, and careful about details. When our writing is clear and correct, people think better of us and are more likely to act on our message. Conversely, when we are muddled, longwinded, and error-prone, we sabotage our ability to get our message across.
Here are five steps to writing more clearly and correctly. As you will see, three of them occur before you begin to write. Also known as “The Three Ps”, these three steps require you to refine the DNA of your message before you begin to write.
1. Know your purpose before you start.
First, know the purpose of your document. Are you writing to inform? That means you do not expect any action or change from your reader; your message is a simple FYI. If you want your reader to do or think differently, then you are doing more than informing. Your purpose is to request or persuade. Too many people assume their purpose is to inform, when in fact they are requesting or persuading.
2. Analyze your reader.
Next, analyze your reader. What are the questions your reader is asking him or herself? Most people want to know “What’s in it for me?” and “What am I supposed to do about it?” Anticipate and answer these inquiries. Also, touch on your reader’s hot buttons. These are topics that carry emotional impact, such as cost, safety, reputation, keeping one’s job, customer retention, and so forth. When you can couch your message in terms of the reader’s emotional issues, your message is more likely to break through his or her resistance.
3. Know your point before you start.
Third, know your point before you start. This sounds simple, but how often have you received a document that you read – and read, and read – and you still did not get the point? This happens when the writer is not clear about the main point. People throw 50 points on the page and pray that the reader will figure out which is the main one. You might never state your point outright. For example, if your point is, “This is a bad investment”, you might list all the reasons why it is a bad investment and say you do not recommend it. The reader will infer the main point. More often, however, it pays to state the point at the beginning, where it will have the greatest impact on the reader.
4. Keep your sentences short.
After you have clarified the Three Ps, move on to the writing. We could talk for hours about the elements of good writing, but here is one simple tool to remember: Keep your sentences short. You should have an average sentence length of around 20 words. How do you gauge your sentence length? Use the “Check Readability Statistics” function in MS Word. Under “averages”, it will tell you your average words per sentence. Maintaining a low average means that you can occasionally write a long sentence if you need to, as long as the average stays low.
5. Read aloud to proofread.
After you finish writing, always take time to proofread. What is the point of rushing to send out a document without proofreading it? Your errors will undermine your credibility and damage your message. There is no benefit to not proofreading. Yet, how many of us have proofread a document several times, only to send it out and discover an error in it after it’s too late to do anything about it? When we proofread, our eyes often mislead us. You can circumvent this problem in two ways: Read from the end to the beginning, and read aloud. Reading aloud is especially helpful, as it will also enable you to correct your punctuation by putting in commas at pauses and periods at stops. In addition, reading aloud will give you feedback about your tone.
Remember to clarify the Three Ps: purpose, person, and point. Keep your average sentence length below 20 words. Read aloud before you send. Then you will develop a reputation as a solid, clear-thinking professional whose messages are worth reading.