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9 Ways to Write Clear Copy

Morons have spoken

I was fortunate to skip most of school as a lad so as not to be grammatically brainwashed. But I didn’t learn how to write either.

In fact, I enjoyed being obscure for obscurity’s sake …

As if my cryptic poems and self-indulgent letters pulled the rug over the eyes of my readers. Rightly so, everyone pretty much wrote me off.

Until I learned how to write direct-response copy.

Communication is about clarity. Simplicity in message. Simplicity in meaning. Logically leading from one sentence to the next, so readers can understand what you wrote …  and respond.

Here are some tips to help you write clearly. Enjoy.

1. Reduce Reliance on Difficult Words

I’m a strong advocate of building a wicked vocabulary. But opening your window after a morning downpour, breathing in, and saying “Boy, the petrichor is tenacious this morning,” is going to lose any listener.

Here’s what you meant to say: “Boy, that smell of rain on the ground is strong.”

2. Short Sentences

Hemingway mastered the short sentence. Displayed its startling power in stories like “Hills Like White Elephants.” He learned that trick as a journalist.

Newspapers employ the short sentence because it’s easy to follow the meaning of a short sentence. The cognitive overload is low, unlike a William Faulkner sentence that trails on — line after line — until you stop, look back, and realize you are lost.

But don’t miss this: break up the monotony of short sentences with an occasional long one. Then return to the short. The same is true for paragraphs. Short, short, short, long, short.

Repeat.

3. Short Paragraphs

A block of text daunts readers, not unlike the thick forests that intimidated medieval people. Hence, a paragraph should be no longer than two or three sentences.

Sometimes four, sometimes one … but all sentences accomplishing one goal: maintaining one point.

4. Front Load Sentences

This one is a little tricky. It’s out of web usability expert Jakob Neilson’s play book. Load the front of headlines, subject emails, and the first sentence of a paragraph with key ideas and critical information.

Do this and readers can skim your content and walk away with the most important information. If that is all they want.

5. Cut Redundant Words

What’s the difference between “added bonus” and “bonus”?

What about “we currently have vacant rooms” versus “we have vacant rooms”?

What about “get to the point as quickly as possible” and “get to the point”?

The answer: nothing. The added words waste space.

We write this way because we often talk this way. We think by saying “Get to the point as quickly as possible” impresses upon the listener our severity. But don’t we always snap to attention when someone says, “Get to the point.”

It’s like a crack of the whip.

6. Cut Dead-Weight Phrases

I’ve used if-then sentences more than I wish to admit. I think because of the authority of logic they carry. Let me show you what I mean. Compare the two sentences:

  • If you want rock hard abs, then you’ll need to do one hundred crunches a day.
  • Want rock hard abs? Then do one hundred crunches a day.

Which is clearer? Stronger?

What about this sentence: “To get rock hard abs, do one hundred crunches a day”?

Listen: you don’t always need to use If-Then phrases. Cut them from your copy. Including “in order to.”

7. Avoid Modifiers

A quick way to clutter your copy is to depend upon modifiers.

“That’s fairly good copy.”

“I totally understand.”

“She is very pretty.”

“That’s quite a song.”

“He has really long hair.”

Actually, that’s not what I meant.”

“Try this little experiment.”

You can eliminate every single word I italicized without losing your meaning. In fact, create a stronger sentence by replacing both the modifier and the word it modifies with a description or a stronger, more accurate word.

8. Limit the Word “Make”

Next time you write a first draft, before you revise go through your document and count how many times you use the word “make.”

My hunch is it will be a lot.

Make is the lazy writers favorite verb (all first drafts are written by lazy writers).

“Make her give me my money back.”

“Who made up that song?”

“Will you make me an iced tea?”

Replace make with active verbs: “Break her arm if she doesn’t give me my money.” “Who wrote that song?” “Will you brew me some iced tea?”

By the way, how many times have I used make in this post?

9. Use Metaphors

I like similes. But I like metaphors better.

What is a simile? It’s when you draw out a relationship between two objects. For example, surfing is like a drug. Writing is like torture.

We use similes to help people see, feel, hear, taste, or smell something strange to their experiences. It’s hard to forget a good simile.

The same is true for a metaphor. This is when you erase the line between the objects … and they become one.

The phrase “fiscal cliff” is a potent metaphor. It sounds catastrophic. Fatal. Travis at Bit Thinking shares a few more good metaphors from 2012:

  • Icarus deception
  • Career capital
  • Two ovens

A good metaphor will stick in the mind of your reader. An extended metaphor will grow in their mind. Like The Hook and the Hitch.

Your Turn

Have any tips to share on writing clearly? Leave in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. Good tips on writing. Writings have no value if not well understood. A Writer should know his audience in order to control the terminologies used. Otherwise you are writing and exerting efforts in vain.

    Thanks Damian, your post here is great! keep sharing.

  2. I would add:

    Read your copy aloud. Several times. Every single time.

    Your ears will “feel” the bumps.

  3. I Love Your Content. :)

  4. That’s probably my biggest problem. I try and write technical stuff and it comes off boring. I need to ease up on the crazy jargon and just speak to the average person.

    Excellent article. Thanks for posting!

  5. Rob Philbin says:

    Another list to print and magnet to the fridge door.

    Nice work again, sir.

    (Heads up: I’m getting a 404 from your ‘extended metaphor’ link dude)

  6. Ha! Just had to look up that p-word!

    Yes, I supposed all these redundant words that get into copy online are the curse of experts telling everyone to “write the way you talk”, and don’t we all just, like, love, our superfluous words, like?

    My tips? Cut “the” from your writing. This kills it more than most words. Replace “the” with “a”, or nothing at all. For example, “the thing about great writing is …. “. Instead: “Great writing is …”
    Only use “the” when your sentence wouldn’t make sense without it. For example: “A stranger told me the shop was closed today.”

    Using metaphors in my writing is still a work in practice.

  7. Demian,

    No one should ever write “in order to”. I’ve never found a single case in which these 3 words were necessary.

    Glad you feel the same way.

  8. I’m not completely clear on this :)