Let the clear writing begin

Principles of clear writing
For more than 25 years, I’ve specialized in clear writing. I’ve written user guides and reference manuals, video scripts and emails, blogs and reports, course content and textbooks, exams and public education material. My work has taken me into a wide range of organizations from small consulting firms to government organizations, from the high-tech sector to the construction industry, from academic institutions to power companies. I’ve discovered key principles that apply across the board.

You won’t find these principles in a manual of style or grammar book. You may not find them in books on how to write either. They are tricks of the trade learned through hard work and experience focused specifically on business writing. You could find this information in a university textbook or a technical writing course, but I’m going to give you the short version. In the upcoming months, I’ll be writing a blog every two weeks to share key principles of clear business writing.

Many people assume that being clear means using baby-sized words, but it’s not about that at all. The principles of clear writing work equally well, whether you’re writing for the general public or a specialized technical audience. Sometimes this means using simple words. Other times it means using specialized language.

Besides, it’s actually not word choice that matters the most. People matter more. Being clear is about respecting people’s time and making their life easier. Do that well and your writing will be powerful.

Defining the audience and purpose
Step one is gaining a solid understanding of the audience and purpose. Even if you have deep subject matter expertise, you may not know all that you need to know about the audience. Who are you writing for? What do they need? It sounds simple enough, yet we’ve all skipped over these questions, or fooled ourselves into believing the answers can be extrapolated from gut instinct and assumptions.

When it comes to understanding what other people need, the best thing is to ask. It takes time, but not checking can have negative results. It happens all the time. An email is stuffed with information people already know. A user guide is not useful. A report is bloated by explanations the audience doesn’t need.

People who feel their time has not been respected will be more careful about how much time they give you in the future. This is as true with written communication as it is with what happens face-to-face. Start from a position of respect and earn your readers’ trust. They will return time after time, grateful for the care you put into your writing. After all, who does not appreciate being helped?

Brief phone interviews or email surveys can go a long way in clarifying needs. Although you may want to check with subject matter experts and stakeholders, your main focus is on the people who will be using the information.

Ask people what they’d most like to change. Find out what frustrates them. Learn what people struggle with the most and you will know what needs to be written. If you’re writing for customers, talk to the people who work at the help desk and read customer complaint logs.

The best business writing fills gaps in understanding or action. Take a look at what’s happening now and ask what would be more optimal. Now you know where to focus your writing efforts. You may not have started to build sentences, but you’ve built something more essential—a solid foundation for writing that meets clear and honest needs.

© Debbie Bateman 2018

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