Here are some easy tips to help you think about writing in plain English:
Clarity first. Clever Second
It’s easy to let your creative juices drown out your rational thoughts. Especially after your seventh flat white. But remember one thing: as a content writer your aim is to get a message across. Don’t let your poetic tendencies kill the meaning of what you need to communicate, unless pure entertainment is your sole aim.
Good communication is about being understood. If it takes your reader longer than a few seconds to get the point, they will get bored.
Keep sentences relatively short
Keeping sentences short makes things easier for the scanning eye to read. Some talk about restricting web copy to 16-18 words per sentence, for example. Whilst I prefer not to be too rigid, this is a good place to start as it gets you in the habit of thinking about editing back ‘wordy’ sentences. Carrying over our conversational tendencies into our writing means we often use more words than we need to.
If you cannot make a point in less than 20 words though, I’d suggest you rethink it. One useful trick to get you focused is to restrict your use of commas. Another is to…
Stick to one point per sentence
If you’ve ever read Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 then you probably had to read the book’s first sentence at least twice. That’s because it is seven wordy sentences long. But it serves a purpose, and that it is to set the tone for the style of the rest of the book. While this is great in fiction, such an elaborate style is the antithesis of good content writing.
Your reader should never have to read something twice. Make your sentences digestible. Say too much in one sentence and you will lose them.
It doesn’t matter what industry you are in – if you use language that you wouldn’t use daily, chances are it’ll sound a little pretentious. Sometimes referred to as inkhorning, this can dent your credibility, as using long words and sentences instead of simple, clear language has the cumulative effect of sounding exclusive. It turns people off. This does not mean dumbing something down though – where a technical word does the job best, use it. Just be sure your reader will know what it means.
When you are sitting at a keyboard it is very easy to forget how your words actually look on the page. But this is a crucial element in engaging your audience. If you are writing a blog post, a wall of text will turn the reader off. Equally, a list of one-liners (like, ahem, some of the BBC’s online content) makes your copy appear like it lacks depth. Find the balance.
Keith Lewis is a freelance copywriter based in Brighton.