Writing to be understood by your audience

spot.jpg
See Spot languidly saunter in the
sunshine, adjacent to a
glistening pool which reflects
the light more sharply even
than his fur.

Huh?

Spot walks by the sunlit pool.

Those who write clearly have readers. Those who write obscurely have commentators. - Albert Camus

One of our campus Web maintainers recently asked if our department advocated writing to a certain reading level. I responded that while "fours years below the level of your audience" is a decent rule of thumb, the most important thing is to write clearly.

What does it mean to write clearly?

Does it mean you have to "dumb it down?" Must you always eschew all technical vocabulary? Should you limit yourself to using short words in short sentences, such as "See Spot run."? No, clear writing doesn't need to be shallow, it just needs to be precise and to the point.

Sometimes writers worry, that if they simplify their writing, they will have to leave out vital information. Others worry that their writing will appear unsophisticated—making them seem less informed. I think we must cast those worries aside and leave our egos at the door. A reader who easily understands the message will have more respect for the writer than a reader who had to read each sentence three times with a dictionary open on his knee.

While sentence structure and word choice contribute to writing clearly, perhaps the most important thing is to have a clear vision of your intended message. With that in mind, the writing will come more easily.

Goal 1: What are you trying to say?

Before you begin typing, try to identify your primary communications goal. Are you:

  1. Announcing the time, place and cost of the 3rd Annual Pinniped Symposium?
  2. Teaching students how to use the machine that goes "bing"?
  3. Demonstrating your intellectual prowess through the use of large vocabulary words and complex sentences?
  4. Commenting on the reading assignment for your class?
  5. Venting about urban sprawl while soliciting ideas for rebuilding our inner cities?
  6. Telling a story about the talking hippopotamus who saved the river queen by sitting on the evil 12-clawed erosion monster?

Identifying your goal should give you a quick sense of how much and what type of writing will be required to convey your message. If the message is complex, this would also be a good time to write an outline to organize your thoughts in a logical progression.

You probably noticed that number 3 doesn't seem like a valid goal. It's not. I mention it as a reminder to leave our egos at the door. Every now and again I stumble upon a writer who just can't push her ego to the side. In such cases, the prose is so convoluted and hard to follow that any other goal is lost in the word play. Berkeley's J. Bradford DeLong gives a good example of this (as well as a lucid translation) in his essay, Communication: Should We Write to Be Understood?

Goal 2: Communicating what you want to say to your intended audience

Your point is to communicate, rather than to confuse, so it is important to write with your audience in mind. If your subject is highly technical and your readers are well-versed in the topic, then of course you should take advantage of your common vocabulary. To do otherwise would cause confusion.

If you are writing to those new to the field then you will want to offer more simple explanations. That said, in neither case do you want to overly challenge your audience by letting your words get in the way of your message. If your readers want to know how to use the copy machine, don't overwhelm them with data on electrostatic charges and photoconductivity. Just tell them to select a quantity on the keypad and push the big green (or other simple descriptive) button. Readers want to follow a story, or learn how to do something—without having to fight through the words to understand. Tailor the text to your readers based on their expertise in both subject matter and reading ability.

Reading ability: Why should we consider Reading Levels?

If you've ever run spell check in Microsoft Word or other popular programs you've probably come across the "Flesch Reading Ease" and "Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level" scores for your document. These—now common place—tools are the result of research done by Rudolph Flesch and other readability experts, who came up with methods to quantify the readability of text based on sentence length, number of words and number of syllables.

During the 1940's and 1950's Flesch, a proponent of clear writing, worked with periodicals and newspapers to improve readability and enhance circulation. According to "What's with the newspapers" published in the May 2, 2005 issue of the Plain Language At Work Newsletter, newspaper readership increased by 45 percent as newspapers dropped their reading levels from the 12th grade to the ninth grade. Sales demonstrated that customers were willing to read more when the writing was easier to understand. While writing clearly seems like good ole common sense, this example shows us—quantifiably—how accessible writing can impact our readers, and in turn, our own goals as writers.

How does this apply to you? Gauge the complexity of your own writing.

You've chosen a goal and you've written your first draft. It makes sense to you, but then again, you already know about the topic. How can you tell if it will make sense to your readers? Should you run it through spellcheck to check the reading ease and levels? While you should always spellcheck, I'm not sure that you need to measure the reading levels of everything you write. These tools can help you determine the approximate difficulty level of your writing, but other factors, such as your writing style, are equally important.

Rather than focusing on particular documents I think it helps to get an overall sense of your writing and your audience. Having run spellcheck many times over the years, I've found that my writing often scores around a 12th grade reading level—I have a penchant for long sentences, the passive tense, and other "rule-breakers." My audience of faculty, staff and students tends to be highly educated, so this shouldn't pose much of a problem. Yet, I also know that I don't want to challenge my readers. I want you to easily read and digest this information while picking the pickles off your sandwich and listening to that new CD you just ordered from Japan. In other words, I want to drop it down a notch, perhaps to a 9th grade reading level that you can follow even if you're half-asleep.

Does that mean I immediately go back to my copy, shorten all the sentences and trade-in every big word for a smaller one? No. While some plain language experts would disagree, I think you can break some rules to retain the flavor of your own style. The tests provide an approximate level, but they can't perfectly judge the clarity of your writing.

Rather than worrying about how I've scored, I prefer to set aside the document and come back to it with fresh eyes the next day. Then I'll read through to see if any parts seem confusing. While doing so I try to imagine that I'm someone less familiar with the topic—asking myself if concept A would make sense if I didn't already know about it. If the situation warrants I'll also share the document with a friend or colleague to see if it seems clear to them.

While this technique works for me, you may find another approach works better for you. Much of this depends on the nature of your writing. The main thing is to keep yourself focused on writing clearly. Your readers will appreciate it.

Writing Resources
How did this score?

In case you are curious, this entry scored 63.9% in "Reading Ease" and 8.5 for "Grade Level". But the real test is whether it makes sense to you.

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7 Comments »
  1. Heidi, This is a very good and useful post. I hope people use the information in it. Thanks!

    Comment by Mano Singham — March 29, 2007 @8:43 am

  2. Thanks Mano, Coming from someone who tackles complex topics and presents them in a clear and easy to follow manner, I appreciate that. -Heidi

    Comment by Heidi Cool — March 29, 2007 @11:44 am

  3. What an excellent post, very useful. Readers might also find writing resrources to be helpful.

    Comment by Eric Martindale — April 23, 2007 @2:52 pm

  4. This IS a great piece of advice on writing. I would just add one little point - make sure that what you're writing about is of current interest. Otherwise, it isn't worth the effort. And don't forget to make it interesting - it shouldn't be just a retell of an event or a thought. Some kind of analysis should always be present, so the readers could evaluate its importance, otherwise, they'll forget what they just read about in a minute.

    Comment by Helen Walker — June 19, 2007 @7:10 am

  5. Thanks for a concise summary. I have already incorporated some of teh tips into my own text.

    Comment by web design — June 26, 2007 @4:12 pm

  6. "A writer is, after all, only half his book. The other half is the reader and from the reader the writer learns." (P.L. Travers)

    Comment by Jon Pear (a.k.a. NeuroAster) — August 11, 2009 @1:14 pm

  7. Great quote Jon. That really says it all. If we don't write for the reader, we might as well not have written at all.

    Comment by Heidi Cool — August 11, 2009 @1:25 pm

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