If you want to be a better, faster writer, be clear. Does that sound like unnecessary and obvious advice? It should be, but I see cluttered, clunky writing in professionally written materials on an almost daily basis. That tells me we still need to work on clarity.
Why clarity matters
When you’re in a hurry and you’re simply trying to get something written and out the door (or out of your inbox or chat window), you might be typing words that make sense in your head but that doesn’t mean you’re being clear in your writing. And when clarity is lacking, we get two undesirable results: confusion, for one, and wasted time, for another.
Confusion can result when you’re not clear because the person on the receiving end does not understand what you’re trying to communicate. That could very well be because he or she is also in a hurry and only scanning your message. Maybe if they took the time to slowly and carefully read your message, they’d understand it, right?
Except that leads to the other undesirable result: wasted time. The longer it takes the reader to understand your point, the more time is wasted. And they might not have time to slow down and read it carefully, meaning you end up not communicating at all.
An example of confusion vs. clarity
Below is a real paragraph pulled from a real, professionally written document. (Names and numbers have been changed to protect the innocent.) I can read this and I can make sense of it, but I had to read it a couple of times to understand what it says because it’s unclear:
During the 2012-2013 school year, the average number of students earning a score of 3 or better on the Advanced Placement (AP) exam across XYZ Virtual School AP courses was 67 percent, seven percentage points higher than the national average of 60 percent for the same courses. Each year, XYZ students have performed as well or better than the national average. (61 words)
Now before you read any farther, think about how that paragraph above could be rewritten to be more clear, and therefore easily and quickly read and comprehended. Take a minute or two…
The same content now clearly written
Did anything jump out at you that might increase the clarity of that paragraph? For comparison, below is my quick rewrite:
XYZ Virtual School AP students usually perform as well or better than the national average on Advanced Placement (AP) exams. During the 2012-2013 school year, 67 percent of these students earned a score of 3 or better. That’s 7 percentage points higher than the national average of 60 percent. (49 words)
Here’s what I did:
- I got to the point of this paragraph in the first sentence. The performance of the XYZ students is the point of this paragraph. The other information is only there to back up the claim. In the original paragraph, this most important point was the last sentence of the paragraph!
- When it happened is less important, so I took the school year information and made it secondary and part of the supporting points.
- I didn’t change the word “percent” to the percentage sign, so as to adhere to the style being used, but I could argue that doing so would make this easier to read: 60% can be read in an instant while 60 percent requires your mind to put two words together to get the meaning.
- I took out extraneous information, such as “for the same courses” as that’s implied, and I tightened text. Doing so cut 12 words from the paragraph, while also making it easier to understand.
And that often happens when we’re more clear: We use fewer words and that too saves time for the reader, helping them get to your point, and digest your message faster and more accurately.
We write to communicate. When we write with clarity, we communicate both better and faster.
(Want your employees to save time when writing? Look into a writing workshop.)