The education system taught many of us that long words and complex sentence structures are signs of sophistication. Un-learn this as fast as you can! Convoluted language won’t win you any friends in the real world. On the contrary—it’s the fastest way to send your reader to sleep, or worse—back to Facebook.
Citizens of the Internet are ruthless with how they dispense their attention. If you want your content to be more accessible to more people—if you want to inform, persuade, and capture attention (and keep it)—there are some very specific things you need to do.
There’s a surprising amount of work involved in writing clearly and concisely. But I promise—every effort you make will be rewarded tenfold. So summon your enthusiasm. Let’s get started!
Approach front-loading like you would the Mandelbrot set. At every level, start strong. This will help you gain attention and keep it. First—hook your reader by leading with a single, strong, compelling idea. Next, keep them reading by front-loading your paragraphs or content chunks with clear, meaning-heavy statements. And lastly, improve comprehension and reading-ease by front-loading your sentences with meaning by using active voice. Speaking of...
Active voice describes a statement that contains an active verb. Active verbs link a subject directly to an object through an action. In other words they quickly reveal who did what to whom.
By contrast, passive voice focuses on a subject and something that was done to them. In passive statements, the object (or ‘doer‘ ) is often missing or tacked onto the end of the statement.
The egg industry is shredding millions of day-old baby chicks.
We just launched a nationwide awareness campaign.
Your relentless messages convinced CruelCompany to drop cage eggs!
Millions of day-old baby chicks are being shredded by the egg industry.
A nationwide awareness campaign has just been launched.
CruelCompany has been convinced to drop cage eggs!
Here’s how active voice strengthens your writing:
Does passive voice still have a place? Absolutely. Sometimes it pays to draw focus away from the ‘doer’. When culpability is less important than impact, it may be strategic to start a sentence with those affected by an action.
To use active voice and passive voice effectively, recognize how each approach manipulates meaning and draws your reader’s attention to different things. When in doubt, defer to active voice. This will improve reading ease and reduce your word count.
Language is amazing. There are literally infinite ways we can say the same thing. But let’s face it—some ways are better than others. So, where do you start when you sense your grammatically perfect sentence is ‘lacking’ something? Start with your verb (or ‘doing’ word).
The right verb can be transformative. Weak verbs are the very basic types of action words. “Come”, “go”, “have”, “get” are common examples. By contrast, powerful verbs are specific forms of action words. “Languish”, “endure”, “enrich”, “rush”, “unite” are examples of powerful verbs.
Live exporters are putting millions of animals onto death ships.
We got the Prime Minister to change her mind!
The Bill was voted down.
Live exporters are marching millions of animals onto death ships.
We persuaded the Prime Minister to change her mind!
The Bill was defeated.
Powerful verbs occur less frequently in language because they apply in more specific circumstances. Your job is to identify the specific verbs that best suit to your circumstance. Yes, this requires more effort. But in return, powerful verbs deliver deeper meaning, emotion, and persuasion.
Watch out for adverbs. You can’t turn a weak verb into a powerful verb by combining it with a “-ly” descriptor. Very often, adverbs such as “hurriedly”, “boldly”, “badly”, “eagerly”, “effortlessly” are pointing you to where a powerful verb is missing.
Weak verb + adverb
They went quickly through the raceway.
The Minister handled it poorly.
We carefully looked at the evidence.
They sped through the raceway.
The Minister botched it.
We scrutinized the evidence.
Resist the urge to over-engineer statements that don’t need help. A powerful verb adds little if it introduces complexity. Some situations specifically call for the simplest, most basic form of a verb. Statements like “We get it.” and “It didn’t go our way.” can be highly effective in the right context.
Like active and passive voice, the key to mastering verbs is to appreciate how conscious word choices can enhance the meaning and impact of a sentence. Lazy language will sedate your reader. Make your words work harder. The most relevant, meaningful verb will breathe life into a sentence and hold your reader’s attention for longer.
‘Plain language’ is not what you think it is. It’s what your audience thinks it is. Remember—advocacy is your world, it’s not your reader’s. Avoid political, legal, or industry jargon as best you can. Use ‘kitchen table’ language to get your point across.
If you regularly write for industry, corporate, or government stakeholders, you may be in the habit of using precise language. However, when writing for a general audience, there is often a chasm between being ‘precise’ and being ‘understood’. The more you know about a topic, the easier it is to misjudge how much your audience knows. This phenomenon is known as the curse of knowledge. To break the curse, picture yourself talking to a 12 year old. Then consider whether it’s better to say “they were in breach of regulations” or “they broke the law.”
It’s a really good idea to cut the redundant words from your writing that you don’t actually need.
Filler words add length and slow your reader from gaining insights or completing your action. When words don’t add value, they dilute impact. Train yourself to spot filler words and zap them before you publish. Here’s what to look for:
You really need to see this.
Piglets’ tails are cruelly cut off without pain relief.
She suffered terribly for days.
You need to see this.
Piglets’ tails are cut off without pain relief.
She languished for days.
It’s surprising how many words you can lose without losing meaning. Practice these tips to ensure every word is pulling its weight!
Don’t mistake run-on sentences—full of endless clauses and clarifications, like this one—for clarity. Add stops to break up long statements. Mix up your sentence length to keep your reader awake. And the occasional micro-sentence adds punch. Try it!
When you’ve mastered the points above, you should have no trouble pitching to a comfortable reading age that doesn’t force your reader to work too hard to follow you. If a 12 year old can understand what you’re saying, everyone can understand what you’re saying. (Okay—technically 10 year olds might struggle, but you get the point.)
There’s a brilliant (and free) app that applies many of these principles to your writing in real time. It’s called Hemingway. Get it here.
Wow. If you got through all that in one hit, take a bow. Then, take a breath. The irony is that it’s easy to write long, complex-sounding sentences that are full of jargon. It takes much more effort to be clear and concise.
The key is to use words intentionally. Be prepared for this to take more time than you’re used to. It gets easier. Practice by doing a final pass over your draft through a ‘readability lens’. If your writing is subject to peer review, be ready to apply the ‘readability lens’ to other people’s edits, too!
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