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Writing for Clarity

Like other companies, we talk a lot internally about how to make our message clearer and how to keep the user engaged.  One of the most important things we have honed in on is our messaging – making it relevant, concise and clear.

And now, because we like you so much, we are going to share 10 tips that we have compiled from reading articles, holding internal discussions and trial-and-error.  Away we go:

TIP #1: Be Relevant

Regardless of whether you are writing for web, print or a birthday invitation, you need to consider your audience.  Try to remember that they are interacting with you for a reason (most likely to gain information or to be entertained) so you should give them what they came for.

TIP #2: Put Conclusions First

Format your content like an inverted pyramid – conclusion at the top and all of the details supporting that conclusion below.  Users are bombarded with so many messages, that the easier you make your content to scan, the longer they will stay with you and come back later.

Also consider Z vs. F patterns.  Studies have shown that most web readers tend to read in an “F Pattern” opposed to the “Z Pattern” that we commonly use when we read books.  Why fight that?  Make it easy for your user by organizing your content in an “F” with lists and subheadings (discussed below).

TIP #3: Have One Idea Per Paragraph

Don’t confuse people – this isn’t a novel or a textbook.  Keep it simple, and your users will stay with you.  Be concise when you write and don’t try to say too much too fast.

TIP #4: Use Action Words

Wouldn’t you rather read something that showed you what was going on than told you? Try to paint a picture for your reader and their engagement with your content will skyrocket.

Bonus Tip #4b: Have a Strong Call to Action

Just as important as action words is a call to action.  What do you want people to do after having read what you have written? Is it obvious that they should go to your online store or download your webinar? If not, it’s time to make a change.

TIP #5: Lists vs. Paragraphs

On the web, lists are your best friend.  Paragraphs can get monotonous (not that you would write one like that – you are smarter than that now), but people love lists.  Lists are great because:

  • They are concise
  • They organize content in an “F” pattern (discussed above)
  • They are easier to remember than paragraphs

TIP#6: Make List Items Short

You may remember hearing about this in a psychology class in high school, but studies show that we humans can typically only remember about 7-10 “things” at once.  That could be digits of a phone number, food on your grocery list, or, let’s say, tips about clear writing. Any more than about 10 changes the ability for someone to remember as accurately.

Lists are not paragraphs.  Do not make each list item a paragraph – if your content is that extensive, consider not using a list.  List items should have about 7 words in them so people remember them better.

TIP #7: Write Short Sentences

Do you ever read something in a book and when you get done with the page, you realize that you have to read it over because you didn’t retain anything? That’s probably because the sentences were too long.  Try to be concise – just like when you write lists or paragraphs – because you don’t want to lose people.

TIP #8: Include Internal Subheadings

Scanning, scanning, scanning.  Internal subheadings make it easier for someone to scan your content, directing them to the information they are really looking for.  If they find it easily, guess what?  They are going to be happy. Happy people tell their friends and come back to you time and time again if they need more help.  Internal subheadings are also a great way to construct your F patterns.

TIP #9: Make Links Part of Your Copy

Links, aside from being extremely useful on their own, links can provide you with oh so much more joy.  Links can:

  • Provide more information to your user
  • Break up a copy-heavy paragraph (making it easier to read)
  • Stand out in your copy, making them more likely to be clicked

TIP #10: Proofread

Always, always, always, always proofread.  Having even the slightest spelling or grammar mistake can send people packing.  If you have errors, you decrease your credibility, and people want information they trust. After you read it, have someone else look it over.  After that, read it backwards – do anything you can to help your content make sense.

Therein lie our top 10.  If you have any others to share, go for it!  We hope you use this power for good and not evil – think everything through and remember the end user.

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