Has this ever happened to you?
You’re driving to work. Or reading a book. Or just drifting off to sleep.
And it comes out of nowhere like a thunderbolt.
The perfect idea for your blog. An idea your readers will simply love. An idea you were put on this earth to spread.
So you excitedly scribble it down, write it up and get it out into the world via your blog.
No reaction. No comments. Certainly no recognition of your undeniable genius.
Just the sound of digital tumbleweeds blowing across the virtual savannah.
You don’t understand what went wrong.
Is it possible your idea simply wasn’t as ground-breaking as you first thought?
Sure, it’s possible. But there’s another explanation why your idea didn’t spread.
Your writing simply isn’t clear enough.
Why Spreading Your Ideas is Like Trying to Assemble an IKEA Table
Have you ever tried to assemble flat pack furniture without the instruction manual?
It’s practically impossible, right?
Even with the instructions it’s hard enough.
And when you’re done, it always seems like there’s a piece missing – or a piece left over – and the end product looks like it could fall apart at any minute. (That’s assuming you even have the patience to finish the job.)
It’s exactly the same with your ideas. Let me explain.
Spreading an idea means getting it from your brain into someone else’s. It means putting together the essential facts, the logical arguments and your insightful conclusions in exactly the right way to recreate your brilliant idea in the mind of your reader.
And here’s the connection:
Write clearly and your perfect conceptual blueprint arrives intact. It’s solid, concrete and can be shared with others.
Write less clearly and it becomes an unstable mess, missing important parts, and soon becomes an abandoned and forgotten project.
But if clarity is so important, what can you do as a writer to ensure your ideas survive the journey to someone else’s consciousness?
How can you write with such clarity that even your dumb uncle (or aunt, or cousin) understands exactly what you’re saying?
20 Inescapable Rules for Writing with Total Clarity
Fortunately you can follow some simple rules to transform fuzzy writing into a lean, mean idea spreading machine.
Rule #1: Use the “X who Y” formula to pigeonhole your readers
Clear writing has a clearly-defined audience.
Writing a post for a specific audience allows you to easily answer questions such as:
- What do they already know and what do they need to be told?
- What’s interesting and relevant?
- What do they want and what do they fear?
Try to describe your audience with this simple formula:
X who Y.
For example: “Bloggers who want to get more traffic.”
Or: “People who lack self-confidence.”
Or: “Artists who are struggling to make a living from their work.”
Make sure you have a clear audience in mind when you write.
The audience for this post is: “Bloggers who want to improve their writing skills.”
Rule #2: Make sure your topic passes the fortune cookie test
If you can’t explain what your post is about in one simple, short sentence, it’s probably too complex or unfocused.
Even in-depth posts need an easy-to-grasp premise you could fit inside a fortune cookie.
For example: “My post teaches the reader three steps for overcoming procrastination.”
Or: “My post uses new research to persuade the reader to eat less red meat.”
Your headline sells the idea of your post to the reader, but if the idea itself isn’t simple, you’ll struggle to write it with clarity.
The fortune cookie message for this post would be: “My post gives bloggers some simple rules for writing more clearly.”
Rule #3: In the beginning, be as predictable as possible
Make sure a clear connection exists between the opening of your post and the headline. Otherwise the reader will quickly become distracted.
Imagine sitting down to watch a movie called “Space Station Alpha” and discovering that the first scene showed a wizard and a dwarf battling a dragon. You’d wonder if you were watching the right movie.
That’s because there’s a disconnect between the expectation set by the title and the information delivered by the opening.
Writers often make the mistake of thinking that a disconnect creates curiosity. They believe their reader will think, “I can’t wait to find out how he connects this with that!”
But far more often, a disconnect breeds confusion instead.
And confusion is the enemy of clarity.
Rule #4: A little stress goes a long way
Writing is a conversation between you and your reader.
In the real world, you can use hand gestures and a shift in tone to signpost key ideas.
But as a writer, you must rely on other tools.
If a sentence, phrase or word is particularly important or significant, use bold or italics to add stress.
But don’t overdo it.
If everything is emphasized, nothing is.
(See what I mean?)
Rule #5: Variety doesn’t add spice – it adds confusion
Always be consistent with your terminology.
If your audience comprises people who write online, are they “writers,” “bloggers” or “authors”? Pick one and stick to it.
Otherwise the reader won’t know if you’re trying to make a subtle distinction or simply avoiding using the same word twice.
Rule #6: Repetition is good. Repetition is good.
If a point is worth making, it’s worth making twice. Or even three times.
Think: what’s the most important idea to leave with your reader when they finish the post? Mention it twice in the body and make sure you repeat it in the closing. Otherwise it will surely get lost.
This post keeps repeating – and reinforcing – the central idea: a lack of clarity stops ideas from spreading.
Rule #7: Metaphors are the sugar that helps the medicine go down
New concepts can be explained by reference to familiar concepts that have useful similarities.
Metaphors can be used to help make a specific point – like the flat pack furniture metaphor (okay, simile) at the start of this post.
Or they can form the basis of a whole post, like this one: 9 Reasons Why Running a Popular Blog is Like Hosting an Awesome Party.
When trying to explain a difficult concept, think about its main features and let your mind wander to find other concepts that share those features.
Rule #8: Write like a paranoid, secretive CIA agent
When passing useful information to your reader, always work on a “need to know” basis.
Only tell them what they need to know to follow your argument. Share the minimum you need to convey the desired message.
They’re reading because they want what you promised them in the headline.
Rule #9: Lead by example
Clear examples help readers understand difficult concepts.
They help make an abstract idea concrete. They make a general principle specific.
If you’re a social media blogger teaching your readers how to write highly-engaging tweets, don’t just explain the principles, give them some specific examples of people who are doing it well.
Just like this post gives some great examples of people who write awesome subheads.
Rule #10: Concrete foundations keep your writing grounded
Concrete language is clearer and easier to grasp than abstract language.
But what do we mean by “concrete”?
Concrete language describes something detectable by the senses. Something you can see, feel, hear, smell or taste. Abstract concepts are much harder to imagine.
For example: “overcoming procrastination” is abstract. You can’t visualize someone overcoming procrastination.
By contrast: “ticking tasks off your to-do list” is concrete. You can easily visualize it.
Check your writing for concreteness and clarity will blossom.
Rule #11: Generally speaking, specific is better
When you provide specific detail in your writing, there’s less room for ambiguity. Your reader is far more likely to end up with the same idea in their head as you have in yours.
Being specific also requires less effort on their part – they don’t need to expend any mental energy to fill in the blanks.
To give an example, “exercise regularly” is general. “Take a brisk walk for at least 30 minutes three times a week” is specific.
(And in case you were wondering “exercise regularly” is still concrete. We can imagine what it looks and sounds like, but we have to fill in the specific details for ourselves – walking, jogging, swimming, etc. By contrast, “understand the importance of exercise” is abstract.)
Rule #12: Uncertainty is the enemy of clarity
Be firm and definite in your writing.
Clarity does not tolerate “might,” “may” or “possibly.”
If you can’t say something with certainty,
perhaps you shouldn’t be writing about it at all.
But this rule comes with an exception.
Artful vagueness can be used in an opening to be more inclusive. The opening for a personal finance blog might contain the following paragraph:
Perhaps you’ve always dreamed of owning a yacht. Or maybe you simply want to retire in your 30s.
It allows you to be relevant to a wider group of people. It cleverly gives the illusion of specificity.
But once into the body of your writing, be sure of yourself. Uncertainty erodes clarity.
Rule #13: Guns may be scary but bullets are your friend
Writers can be a little snobbish about using bullet points. They feel too much like lazy shorthand. Not proper writing.
After all, Shakespeare didn’t use many bullet points. Nor Dickens.
But if you’re in the business of spreading ideas, you must make friends with bullets.
Bullets help to identify a group of related ideas, they break up a dense sentence into easily digestible chunks and they give your post more visual variety on the page.
In fact, it bears repeating. Bullets:
- make it easy to identify a group of related ideas
- break up a dense sentence into easily digestible chunks
- give your post more visual variety on the page
Much clearer, right?
To see how the generous use of bullets can enhance a post, take a look at what I did here.
Rule #14: Unannounced lists (like unannounced guests) make people uncomfortable
Bullets are a valuable tool, but you should never drop your reader into a list without first setting the scene.
- It’s jarring.
- It’s clumsy.
- It ‘s unclear.
See what I mean?
An introductory sentence or subhead works better because:
- It establishes the context.
- It provides a smooth transition into the first point.
- It keeps the reader reading.
Clear writers take the time to introduce their bullet points.
Rule #15: Never store apples with pears
In a list, make sure each point is recognizably related to the others. Check that every point belongs to the same category – the same type of “thing”.
If the headline or subhead promises “10 Ways to be More Productive,” make sure each point is a concrete “way,” i.e., it’s an action the reader can physically take.
“Prioritize your daily tasks” is a way. It’s something you can actually do.
“Facebook is sucking your time” is not a way; it’s a reason. In fact, it probably belongs in a post called: “10 Reasons You’re Not Meeting Your Most Important Goals.”
Rule #16: Respect the natural order of things
If you were giving your reader a list of steps, you’d present them in the order they needed doing, right? Obviously.
But if the items in your list aren’t steps, they often still have a natural order – even if you didn’t have one in mind when you wrote them.
For instance, if you’re a food blogger giving a list of your favorite healthy meals, it makes sense to start with breakfast not dinner.
If you’re publishing a list of productivity habits, start with the easy ones and finish with the harder ones.
Because if the reader spots an item out of its natural order, they will pause and wonder why you didn’t do it differently.
To find the natural order of your list, ask yourself whether the items exist on some spectrum, for instance:
- past to present
- young to old
- small to large
- local to global
- slow to fast
Clear writers respect the natural order of things. They never give their readers a reason to stop reading.
Rule #17: Always include the batteries
Did you ever buy a toy for a kid and then realize – too late – that it didn’t come with batteries?
The toy’s practically useless without power, so you either have to give up on the idea of playing (and deal with an upset child) or go on a mad hunt for the missing cells.
Likewise you should always supply everything the reader needs to fully understand your points within the post itself.
Don’t rely on information found elsewhere to do the work for you. Yes, the internet is an amazing resource. But if you link to external resources that your audience needs to study in order to follow your post, you could lose them forever.
Clear writing is self-contained. Link to supplementary information by all means, but not essential details.
An external link should never seem more attractive than reading the next sentence.
Rule #18: Tell your reader the end is nigh
Writing takes your reader on a journey.
Never forget that reading a blog post is a journey your reader can abandon at any point.
As with any traveler, a point will come where they want to know how far they are from the end.
So let your reader know when they are on the home stretch.
Signpost your closing with a final subhead.
Or use a paragraph which steps back from the last point you made and echoes the opening.
This post does both.
Rule #19: Don’t close like Columbo
Remember Columbo’s famous catchphrase “Just one more thing”?
Many writers find it hard to resist putting “just one more thing” in the closing of their posts.
A bonus step. An extra example. One last piece of advice.
You think you’re being generous but truthfully you’re being greedy. Greedy with your reader’s time, their attention, and their patience.
Once into the closing, the reader will assume you’ve already told them everything they need to know. They’ve mentally drawn a line in the sand. They’ve packed all this new information neatly into their head and now you’re asking them to repack it all so you can add something else.
Don’t commit this crime against clarity. Chances are, you won’t get away with it.
Rule #20: Channel Your Inner Sergeant Major
One last hallmark of crystal clear writing remains.
Does the reader know exactly what you expect them to do once they’ve finished your post?
If not, all other efforts are wasted. No amount of clarity in the rest of your post will save you from a reader left floundering at the end.
So include a clear call-to-action. Tell your reader what you want them to do.
Make it concrete. Make it specific.
Better still, make it the first obvious step on the path to achieving what you promised them at the start of the post.
Even shout at them if you have to.
It’s Time to Stop Crippling Your Ideas
Let’s be honest; clarity is not a quality at the top of the average writer’s wish list.
Few budding writers have stood in front of the mirror and declared, “I’m going to be the clearest damn writer the world has ever known!”
But without clarity, those other qualities that hog the limelight – passion, invention, empathy, originality – are rendered useless.
People can’t spread ideas they don’t fully understand. They won’t take the time to peer through muddy writing to see the ideas beneath. They have too many other distractions demanding their attention.
And those world-changing ideas that wake you up in the middle of the night remain trapped in your head and doomed to obscurity.
Unless you learn how to assemble ideas in the heads of other people.
Unless you master the art of clarity.
Because crystal clear writing is like plugging your reader directly into your brain stem. Ideas flow from you to them without noise or distortion.
So take another look at the rules above. Print them out. Pin them so you can see them whenever you write.
Then stand in front of the mirror and say, “My next post will be my clearest damn writing yet!”
Because it’s time to set your ideas free.