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The readability techniques you need for clear business writing
Author : Kathy Gemmell
Posted : 25 / 03 / 22
We write at work not for writing’s sake, but to make things happen – to get our jobs done. But to do this successfully, you have to take your focus off yourself. You have to think about your reader and what will make this document work well for them. And that takes some planning.
When you’re faced with a looming deadline, doing anything other than diving straight in can feel like a waste of precious time. In fact, many people get quite self-conscious about planning, as they’re afraid their colleagues or line manager will think they’re not working. (Delegates often tell us this on our courses.)
But, as the saying goes, to fail to plan is to plan to fail. Never think of the time you spend planning as wasted: it is a vital part of the process.
We are all prone to becoming trapped in our own little world of ‘getting the document done’. Yet writing that doesn’t consider the reader is unlikely to succeed in its objectives, or even be read at all.
To ensure you get your message across, ask yourself why you’re writing, what you’re trying to say and to whom you’re saying it. Make sure you are clear about what action you want your readers to take once they’ve read the document. In this way, you’ll tell them what they need to know, not what you’ve found out.
You need to put your important messages at the start, so make sure you know what they are before you begin writing. Test them out loud before you commit them to paper: if you can’t make sense of them, how will your readers?
We waste a lot of time crafting sentences only to cut them (or have them cut) at the final edit. So it makes sense to sort out your thinking at the planning, not the writing, stage. Marshal your material in a way that is logical and transparent to your reader. And use subheads to show readers at a glance how your themes develop.
So how do you put the reader at the centre of your writing? Start by asking yourself:
You may want your work to be noticed, but your writing shouldn’t be. In business, good writing is invisible. You have failed if you force your reader to concentrate on the words rather than the message.
There are specific ways in which you can hone your writing style to highlight what you’re saying rather than how you say it.
The central readability principles are:
Now let’s look at each principle in turn.
Be direct by addressing your readers as ‘you’ and referring to yourself, the writer, as ‘we’ or ‘I’ wherever possible.
For example, in place of: ‘The writers of this sentence advise readers to adopt this technique,’ write: ‘We advise you to adopt this technique.’ This will make your writing – and its relevance – easier to understand. ‘You’ and ‘we’ also make writing sound more confident, more transparent and more personal.
Make sure, too, that you write about what concerns your readers rather than about your organisation’s internal processes.
Delegates are instructed to send in examples of their writing before training courses. The office manager receives the samples and sends them to the trainers, who analyse them to get a better idea of where delegates’ strengths and weaknesses lie.
Please send us an example of your writing before the course. We will analyse it so that we can give you an idea of where your strengths and weaknesses lie.
Using the active voice more often is the single biggest thing that will give your writing a bit of oomph. If a piece of writing seems unspeakably dull, it’s probably because the writer has overused the passive voice.
Consider this sentence:
Allowances were made by the trainer for late arrivals.
This sentence is in the passive voice. The person or thing doing the action (‘the trainer’) follows the action (‘were made’).
The active voice puts the ‘doer’ – in grammar terms, the agent – first. This makes the sense clearer and the wording less clumsy:
The trainer made allowances for late arrivals.
The trainer allowed for late arrivals.
You could also write the passive sentence like this:
Allowances were made for late arrivals.
This sentence doesn’t tell you who took the action it describes (there is no agent). This is because, unlike the active voice, the passive allows you to remove the agent.
So if a sentence leaves you asking ‘By whom?’, it’s passive. This is why the passive may produce opaque text. Using the active voice forces you to be more specific and, again, more confident.
It was assumed by management that the changes to working practices had been implemented.
Managers assumed that staff had implemented the changes to working practices.
Managers assumed staff had changed their working practices.
(Note: using the passive voice isn’t an error and you don’t always have to avoid it. There are some occasions where it is a good choice.)
Make sure you write what you mean by saying it aloud. As far as possible, use everyday language – the kind of language you use when you talk – to get your message across to your reader.
Be rigorous in your editing. Are you using the best word for the job? What do you mean? Is there a simpler way to say it? When you think you’ve finished, try cutting the content by a third.
Using jargon is fine for an internal or expert readership, provided you’re certain they’ll understand it. But avoid it when writing for external or non-expert readers. Keep abbreviations and acronyms to a minimum. And explain them when they do crop up.
Use verbs (which express actions) rather than nouns (which refer to things, people and places): it’s the verbs that make language dynamic. Be especially vigilant for those heavy nouns ending in -tion or -sion, eg recommendation.
Such nominalisations (nouns created from verbs) can make your writing clunky and boring to read, as they attract redundant words. See below for some examples.
And use concrete terms rather than abstract (or meaningless) generalities: ‘Help with giving up smoking’ rather than ‘Strategies for smoking cessation’ (the title of a leaflet we found in a local pharmacy).
The aim of this article is to provide an outline of systemic operations to facilitate the implementation of methodology that will assist the team in the avoidance of inconsistency in the wording used in training materials.
This article outlines how we can be consistent with the wording we use in training materials.
Keep your sentences short. Your reader will find it easier to understand what you’re saying if you stick to one idea per sentence.
If you write a long sentence, with many asides and qualifying clauses (like this one), your reader will find it hard to catch and then follow your drift and will probably have to return to the beginning of the sentence in order to make sense of it and in turn – and perhaps most importantly – act on it.
Aim for an average of 17 words per sentence; use a maximum of 35. But varying your rhythm is key: try inserting the odd two- or three-word sentence for impact. It’s easy. And it may well keep your reader awake.
Whilst the organisation currently relies on sponsorship from small enterprises and individuals, the cooperation of large corporate bodies, without whose funding we will not be able to provide the services our clients require, is now essential if we are to campaign successfully for legislative changes that will improve the lives of many sectors of the population.
We need funding to lobby for legislative changes that will improve people’s lives. At the moment, we rely on sponsorship from small enterprises and individuals. But this is not enough. Financial support from large corporate bodies is now essential if we are to provide the services our clients require and successfully campaign for change.
Keep an eye on paragraph length, too. Try to stick to one main point per paragraph. If you can’t sum up that point in a few words in the margin, you’ve probably tried to cram in too much information.
Proofreading isn’t an optional extra: make time for it.
Try to create some distance between writing the document and proofreading it. Print it out and come back to it when you’re fresh. And try to proofread away from your desk – this will help you read as a reader, not as the writer. Use a ruler to guide you, and a pencil to point to each word individually. This will stop your brain reading what it expects to see rather than what’s actually there.
Let’s recap the ten tips that will keep your business writing clear and reader-friendly.
This article is an extract from our style guide, The Write Stuff. You can download your own copy below.
Image credit: fizkes / Shutterstock
Kathy is a professional editor and one of our busiest and longest-serving trainers.
Before joining us, she spent 11 years in the publishing industry – writing, editing and commissioning illustrated reference books – as well as having stints abroad as a freelance editor and teacher.
All this experience left her with a thorough, practical knowledge of the mechanics of language – and a flair for using it. As well as running training and consulting on and editing client documents, Kathy also wrote our style guide, The Write Stuff.
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