“I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”
Blaise Pascal (1657)
Good writing requires time and effort. At Make it Clear writing is an essential part of the job we do. It is a primary component in creating better interactions and its success depends on clarity.
In common with all skills, writing improves with practice. Effective practice depends on us being mindful in our writing and what we are trying to do.
Here are some of the instructions we have written for ourselves to guide us when writing:
1. Write with purpose
Every time we communicate it has a purpose. It doesn’t matter whether that purpose is to simply say hello, explain the workings of a complex product or to get sign off on a significant project. Always write with the purpose in mind and make sure it obvious to the recipients.
2. Be single minded
Write to achieve one purpose at a time. Including multiple subjects or trying to pursue more than one objective rapidly reduces the impact of your writing.
3. Consider the audience
Their response depends on how we present the information to them. Doing so successfully depends on consideration of their circumstances. Do they know what we know? Are they time poor? Are they likely to be receptive to your thoughts? Are they interested in what we want to say?
4. Plan it out
We are writing with purpose. What do we need to include to meet that purpose? What is a sensible order for those things to be included? Is there anything that we can take out which won’t be missed? Is there anything missing that undermines the purpose? Is there anything that we have included that might undermine the purpose?
5. Set expectations
Set out the purpose of any piece of writing early. Let the audience know what they are expected to get from it and what we are trying to achieve.
6. Use short sentences
As short as possible. Review everything you write with an eye to making sentences shorter. Where possible replace comma’s with full stops. This may require re-writing the surrounding sentences. That’s OK. In particular avoid wordy phrases, ‘regardless of the fact that’ can be replaced by ‘although’, ‘it may be the case that’ is just a long way of saying ‘if’.
7. Use short words
In general we are not writing to impress, but to generate understanding. Facilitate is a fancy way of saying help. Better to use several short words than a long word. Short words are easier and quicker to understand. ‘Do as I say, not as I do’, is easier to understand than ‘hypocrite’. Even to a highly educated audience.
8. Structure your writing
Break long form text into paragraphs. Keep paragraphs down to 3-4 lines. Use headings to indicate the topic of sections. We aim to reflect the plan in the sections we create.
9. Use signposting
Make headings visible. In long documents put in an index. Let the audience know where they can find information.
10. Start at the beginning
Establish context. This can be a long process i.e. writing a research summary in a proposal or a short process, ‘Following our discussion yesterday.’ Never assume that the audience will be waiting for our comms, or that their head will be in the right place when they get it. Help them into the right mindset, then deliver the message.
11. Don’t get lost in the middle
The document has a purpose. Everything in the document should support that purpose. It may be that we want to get something off our chest about how hard the process was. Or, we may want to demonstrate how clever the solution really is. But if it doesn’t matter to the audience, it doesn’t need to be there. The middle is just the path to the end, enough to bring the audience with us and no more.
12. Be transparent and direct
Don’t leave room for misunderstanding. Don’t disguise meaning in a block of copy. If it needs to be said, say it directly, ambiguity is bad. This goes equally for praise and for criticism.
13. Be highly specific
Especially when talking about deliverables and deadlines. If something will be delivered ‘on Friday’ specify when on Friday. Detail deliverables in such a way that it is easy to determine whether they have been met, or not. If we don’t know what the deliverables will be yet, be explicit about the stage at which they will be defined.
14. Write to support the outcome
Don’t write to show how clever we are, or how hard we are working, or that we are misunderstood! Write to support the purpose and, therefore, the desired outcome.
15. Write with authority
Don’t write ‘could’ write ‘will’. Be direct about what we think should happen. We are experts, project that through our writing. If the audience disagree they will tell us and we will learn something.
16. Remove everything that isn’t essential
It is likely we can remove 20% of the words we have written and still make the same point. (19)
We can probably remove 20% of the words without changing the impact. (12)
17. Make no distinction between the writing to colleagues, clients or their customers
The value of good communication doesn’t change dependent on who you are talking to. Take the time to consider how well we are communicating in emails to colleagues it’s good practice and prompts good discipline.
18. Read back what has been written
Not just a cursory glance read it, really look for where it could be better. If it helps read it out loud. (Mouth it if you don’t want to broadcast across the office).
And read it again.
20. Get it checked
Before anything is sent out ask someone else to look at it. Ask them to be critical. When asked to help, take the responsibility seriously. Help each other be better.
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