Saturday, April 26, 2008

Concise writing is usually clear writing (1)

Here’s a quick way to get started when you want to produce clear writing: As you edit your first draft, look for wordy phrases to shorten. Wordy phrases are usually vague as well as wordy. And to make matters worse, wordy phrases often contain passive-voice verbs. (Passive voice is generally harder to understand than active voice.)

This is an example of the use of wordy phrases. It is from the web site of Entropic Communications:

“Our c.LINK technology has been designed to address [vague, wordy phrase] the very difficult communications environment of the coax home network architecture. The coax home system is designed for a “vertical” communications to and from the cable system head-end to [vague, wordy phrase] the devices connected to coax outlets in the home… [boldface added]”

Here’s an easy revision, making the boldfaced phrases more concise:

Our c.LINK technology is for [precise, concise phrase] the very difficult communications environment of the coax home network architecture. The coax home system “vertically” connects the cable system head-end and [precise, concise phrase] the devices connected to coax outlets in the home…

The Takeaway: When editing your first draft, start with the obviously wordy phrases. Think about how you could boil them down. (A good way is to say aloud how you could phrase them more simply.) Boiling down even a few wordy phrases will make a big difference.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Empathy always matters – sometimes a lot

The careful writer always tries to empathize with the reader. It can make a great difference. Consider this example:

Years ago, while preparing for a four-day hike, I bought a compact snake-bite kit, slightly larger than a man’s thumb. The kit contained a tourniquet, a vial of iodine, a scalpel, two rubber suction cups, and the instructions – printed in small type on a sheet of Bible paper, folded into the size of a postage stamp.

I sat in an easy chair in my living room, under a powerful reading lamp, and unfolded and read the instructions. They were very clear. It took me only about three minutes to read and understand them.

But, being a professional writer, I immediately began to empathize with other readers. What if someone bought the kit, did not read these instructions in advance, and then suffered a snake bite? I could picture him: frightened; struggling to concentrate; holding the wind-blown, tissue-thin paper with trembling hands. Squinting to read the small type in blinding desert sunlight or in the deep shade of a thick forest.

Had the manufacturer foreseen those conditions? I looked at the retail packaging. Yes. The packaging included this notice, in large type: “READ THE INSTRUCTIONS NOW.”

That company knows how to empathize.

The Takeaway: Before writing any document, visualize your intended reader: age, sex, occupation, experience, title, knowledge, interests, beliefs, fears, goals, dreams. Visualize the conditions under which he will read the document – and his frame of mind. Try to visualize a real person, as opposed to a composite. Some writers actually tape a photo of a representative reader to the monitor, and look at it often: “Hmm, would Michael understand and believe this sentence?” That may sound contrived, but it works. Try it.

The greatest error: failure to empathize

The single greatest barrier to clear writing is lack of empathy. That is to say, failure to perceive the reader’s point of view. Here’s a simple example:

Depending on whom you listen to, the typical user of email takes from 0.02 seconds to 3 seconds to read a Subject line before deciding whether to delete or open the message. One morning, a few weeks ago, I was sifting through my email, deleting spam and watching for real mail. I paused for a split-second on an email from “Circ Email Notices,” with the Subject line “Circulation Notices.”

I was about to delete it when I thought, “Wait. ‘Circulation’ – isn’t that librarian-jargon for books that have been checked out? I’d better open this.” Sure enough, the email was an overdue notice from Lamson Library, the local university library. I had nearly deleted the notice. It’s fair to assume that many readers did delete their notices.

The librarian had not empathized with his reader. If he had, he would have avoided using librarian-jargon. He would have used the reader’s language. The return address would have been “Lamson Library.” (The reader doesn’t tend to think in terms of departments within the library. He tends to think generally about the library.)

And the Subject line would have been “Overdue Notice.” (That’s the most likely notice the reader expects to receive from the library. And he expects to get one notice, not the multiple notices implied by the librarian’s use of the plural “Circulation Notices.”)

In effect, the librarian was talking to himself: “I have to send the circ notices.” He saw his writing task only from his own point of view. He failed to consider that he was writing to non-librarians.

The Takeaway: Failure to empathize with the reader is the fundamental error of the careless writer. It is the error on which he builds all his other errors. Before writing anything – even an email – pause for a moment to visualize your intended reader. This is especially important if you are a specialist and your reader is a layman. (More on this in our next post.)

Sunday, April 20, 2008


The goal of this blog is to help you produce clear writing every time you write. In some posts, we will also discuss speaking as well as writing.

Here is the method I will normally use: each post will cover one specific technique for clear writing. I will show you some real-world text that is not a good example of clear writing. Then I will show you how the writer could have made the text clearer.

In effect, you can look over my shoulder as I edit someone’s copy. You won’t have to feel awkward or defensive, because it won’t be your copy. (I have hired and trained more than 275 technical and business writers. This method is the best one I’ve found.)

If appropriate, I will explain any relevant principles of clear writing, grammar, logic, composition or diction. So, you’ll get not only the “what to do” and “how to do it” of clear writing but also the “why” – but without a heavy payload of grammar technicalities or other academic content.

At the end of the post, I’ll include a brief “takeaway” that will help you remember and use the technique covered in the post.

In this way, I can show you a great many easy and practical techniques for clear writing, without boring you with hypothetical examples or a rigid compliance to a grammar syllabus. You may even find the posts enjoyable.

Please feel free to post questions, comments or requests.

Best to you,

Joseph Armagnac Roy, “Mr. Clarity”