Three Quick Steps to Clear Writing

image of diamond

“Few appreciate brilliance, but everyone appreciates clarity.”

I came up with that line on Twitter, and thought . . .

Why waste it there?

Here’s the quick and clear guide to clarity in writing:

Short

Short words are the rule that makes your exceptional words sing.

Short sentences make powerful points faster.

Talk

Write like you talk, except better. Better words, better arrangement, better flow.

Know the rules of grammar, then break them like people do. But better.

Care

Clarity comes from deeply caring if people truly understand.

Do you?

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger and CEO of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Brian on Twitter.

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Reader Comments (106)

  1. james A says

    Not the level of depth I look forward to reading and have grown acustomed to expect. There is obviously much more to say on the subject, though I acknowledge the humor and point to writing a clear concise blog on clear concise writing.

  2. says

    I love #3–a new twist on Wm. Zinsser’s “What am I trying to say? Have I said it?”

    When you care enough about readers to make yourself understood, you choose the most apt, direct and conversational language possible.

  3. says

    This is a terrific post. Clarity = Connection. A common trap for copywriters is to obsess with creativity (for creativity’s sake), which increases the risk that their copy will lose their audience — and lead to disappointing response rates. Simple, clearly written copy that connects with your audience and guides them to respond the way you want them to will always win over “creative-obsessed” copy.

  4. says

    I like your emphasis that clarity comes from deeply caring if people truly understand.

    Lucky for me, I don’t publish a post until my brother has looked over it. And vice versa. No matter how well intentioned we are, we may think a particular sentence is crystal clear when in truth, it’s not.

  5. Archan Mehta says

    Thanks for the post, which is spot on.

    Use words and idea to communicate, not to impress.

    Just like the KISS philosophy=Keep It Simple, Stupid!

    Use language sparingly and avoid flowery language, especially when writing for your target audience.

    Convey complex ideas in simple language. Be accurate.

  6. says

    Brief messages can answer needs or leave readers in a quandary. Whether writing a short story or novel, emotion and message walk and talk when the best word is used.

    Passion, courage, conviction, and caring send sparks flying.

    Words are life, light, and salvation.

  7. says

    Brevity. If it can be said with fewer words, say it with fewer words. Expand as much as necessary then leave the podium.

  8. says

    I knew I had omitted a good blog on my list of blogs I read so I added you to my reader… I’ll have to go back and add you to my list.

    I often have to read, reread, then reread later to make sure my meaning is clear. I usually post a couple of days in advance so I have time to reread a post before it goes onto the blog.

    I just gotta get rid of those fluff words…

  9. says

    Thanks everyone for the comments.

    Just wanted to point out I never said the content itself must be short. Brevity doesn’t mean short, it means no longer than necessary. 😉

  10. Kristin Marquardt says

    Short, clear, concise. I like especially the part about caring that others understand what you write.

  11. says

    A fantastic way to write clearly is to go back and cut every single unnecessary word or phrase from your copy. The fewer words, the better your prose.

  12. says

    Yep, that’s the key… writing like you talk. I like to use a little trick that I learned from copywriter Ben Settle. He says that he pretends that he is writing his periodic emails to his grandmother. This way you don’t say anything you’ll regret too much, and you have to make sure your audience gets what you are trying to say, even if it’s technical.

    -Joshua Black

  13. Frank Green--The Bard Society says

    Very subtle: “Know the rules of grammar, then break them like [sic] you do.”

  14. says

    Frank – :)

    Also note the switch from “except better” in the line before to a sentence beginning with “But” (sticklers for grammar hate that).

  15. says

    Yes I really feel that what you say is basicaaly true.

    Short and sweet. Less is best. Show don’t tell. Certain elements work while others don’t work.

    Proper English and grammer, as well as Correct spelling leads an editor, publisher to believe you are highly quailified and professional.

    Gone are the days when folk such as Margerat Mitchell could ship off a manuscript that was as badly damaged as hers, wrinkled, crinckled, coffee stains.

    But in consideration of her journalisitic achievements and her grand reputation, is it any wonder that David O Selznick fought and won to produce, direct and sometimes write and bring onto the silver screen a masterpiece of noteworthy value still alive today as it will be tomorrow.

    Be concise and steady in your writing. You’ll always be in demand and have plenty of readers who will go out of their way to buy your works and to seek you out in at book signings.

  16. says

    I like to read writers whose flow and continuity and easy reading compells you to forget about cooking or cleaning, makes you late for work. Makes you turn off the Tv abd tune everyone out.

    That’s what makes an authors book or poem, short story, etc a success.

    You are what your readers like. They make you and they also can break you.

  17. says

    I tend to be long winded ( something I totally recognize and something I’m working to improve) thus my blog posts and email tips seem to be long winded as well. So this year I am making much more of an effort so say important “stuff” with fewer words….as I ramble on here, oh boy.

  18. says

    I consider myself both well-spoken and well-written (from years of honing both!) but I most definitely write better than I speak. So, to try and write like I speak would be a step back for me.

    It doesn’t mean my copy lacks clarity but that by writing like I write I know that I will stay true to my style and my message.

  19. says

    G’day Brian, An elegant post practicing what it preaches. Thanks. In his 1968 book “The Technique of Clear Writing,” Robert Gunning lists his ten principles of clear writing.
    Keep sentences short
    Prefer the simple to the complex
    Prefer the familiar word
    Avoid unnecessary words
    Put action into your verbs
    Write like you talk
    Use terms your reader can picture
    Tie in with your readers’ experience
    Make full use of variety
    Write to express not impress.
    You can buy a used copy cheaply at Amazon.
    Best Wishes Leon

  20. says

    yeah, these are actually the simple but basic strategies to implement in one’s writing. Some people may belittle them claiming that simple language does not reflect one’s actual level. They Do reflect a level even better than the actual one as they make it easy to avoid many complicated and faulty constructions that the individual could not have a good grasp of

  21. says

    Unfortunately, I DO write the way I speak, which is why I end up with too many useless words! My favorite part of the process is editing my own work and plucking out all but the essentials.
    Now I’ll edit. Ready….
    “I write and edit my own work.” Ta Da!
    Thanks, Brian!

  22. says

    Yea Gabe, I hear you, and plead guilty. Please read my 34,000 word article detailing my tragic encounters with Brevity Deficit Syndrome.

    Before the Net, I used to submit to the letters to the editor section of my local paper. They had a 300 word limit, which taught me (forced me) how to decide what exactly it was I wanted to say, and get on with it. Good exercise!

    But now on the Net, no limits, no editors, oh my, it’s like a free open bar for word addicts.

    Anybody here remember I-Sales Digest, one of the first online business journals? Anybody could submit a post, but the editor only ran the better posts. We could use more moderated discussions like that.

  23. says

    Phil-
    I love your term “brevity deficit syndrome!” Maybe we should start a 12-step program.
    I agree with Lexi: I think brilliance is more impressive than clarity.
    Perhaps we can all agree that if you’re really brilliant, you can convey it clearly and concisely.

  24. says

    I guess most people write long articles because it give them a belief that long articles means got something to show, especially when it comes to make money online from blogging.

  25. says

    Hey Brian – love the post. Especially write like you talk, and breaking grammar rules. Those have always been staples of my writing.

    Keep up the great posts!

  26. says

    Fantastic. I love getting straight to the point.

    And this raises one point. And thats Google.

    If our articles are too short, Google could it to be duplicate. Duplicate because our links and text on every page becomes the bulk of page content.

    Can anyone give guidance on this?

    Perhaps it’s no longer part of Google’s equation…

  27. Sonia Simone says

    @Pat, a piece of advice that Brian’s been giving forever is this: write for readers first, Google second. Google robots don’t have credit cards. Google’s not going to ever become your customer.

    In my experience, if your content is long enough to be useful to your readers, Google doesn’t have any problem recognizing it as unique. That’s assuming your site is properly optimized in the first place, but that’s not difficult for a blogger, particularly if you use a theme like Thesis that’s well optimized for SEO.

  28. says

    Ego shaving, I love it, great phrase. Yea, that’s usually the job. Uh oh, I think my writing might need an ego lawnmower. Somebody draw a cartoon of ego shaving! :-)

  29. says

    On the web especially, short, concise prose is the key to getting people to actually read your posts rather than scanning and moving on.


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