First Principle: Less Is More
Rule 1: Use Fewer Words
“Omit needless words” is one of the enduring messages of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and is an easy first step toward more concise writing. “Whether” is better than “whether or not.” “In spite of the fact that” can be replaced with “though.” “Because” can easily take the place of “for the reason that.” Replacements like these have nearly identical meanings but use fewer words, making messages visually shorter and requiring less time to read.
Omitting truly needless words makes your writing shorter without sacrificing meaning or precision. Getting rid of long-winded phrases is therefore relatively uncontroversial. But sometimes effective writing calls for sacrificing words that are not quite needless, even if they are not quite crucial, either. Sometimes it is worth losing a little precision and meaning to save readers’ time.
Rule 2: Include Fewer Ideas
Concise writing is not just about limiting the total word count. It is also about limiting the number of distinct ideas in a message. Like cutting words, cutting ideas often requires discarding less important but still relevant information to emphasize the more important information. This can greatly improve clarity even in brief forms of communication like text messaging.
Rule 3: Make Fewer Requests
Often we want readers to take multiple actions, such as reviewing documents, replying to questions, supplying information, or even reconsidering core beliefs about, say, immigration or the environment. Before you start loading up on your goals, remember how easily readers get derailed and distracted and how they struggle with multitasking. Asking busy readers for more can cause them to do less. The need to make fewer requests of readers again puts pressure on writers to prioritize their goals.
Second Principle: Make Reading Easy
Rule 1: Use Short and Common Words
In general, words with fewer syllables and words that are more commonly used can be read more easily and quickly. Google has a tool called the Ngram Viewer that shows how often different English words have been used across all text available online over time.
This tool shows that when two words are synonyms, the shorter one generally becomes the more widely written one. Next is more common than subsequent, get is more common than acquire, show is more common than demonstrate, and so on. This is a key element of writing readably: Effective writers let go of their five-dollar pretensions and substitute shorter, more common words for longer, less common ones.
Rule 2: Write Straightforward Sentences
Just as some words take more time and effort to read than others, the same is true of sentences. Humans evolved to speak and listen, long before we developed the ability to read and write. Because we tend to converse in incomplete, short sentences, our brains evolved to make these types of linguistic structures easy to understand. Long, complete sentences are relatively unusual in spoken language, so they challenge our limited mental abilities. This evolutionary perspective can help guide effective writing. It may sound like simple, even childish, advice, but understanding exactly how to write shorter and more straightforward sentences is an extremely useful skill.
Rule 3: Write Shorter Sentences
One reason why short sentences are easier to read than longer ones may be that the longer sentences often incorporate more than one idea. Readers are taught to make sense of each sentence before moving on to the next. Eye-tracking studies can capture this process in action. Readers’ eyes pause when they reach an end-of-sentence period, seemingly to process and integrate the sentence.
The period at the end of a sentence indicates that a certain unified concept is now complete. Readers then take a brief pause, process, and make sure they understand the completed sentence before moving on. Longer sentences require readers to hold more content in their minds before they process the full sentence—a more demanding cognitive task, especially if the sentence contains multiple independent ideas.
Third Principle: Design for Easy Navigation
Rule 1: Make Key Information Immediately Visible
The first question most of us ask when we see a map is, “What is this a map of?” Likewise, when we approach practical writing the first thing we ask is, “What is this about?” The easier writers make it for busy readers to orient themselves and answer that question, the more likely it is that those readers will engage and read the message.
The first step is making the key information instantly and explicitly clear. That might seem obvious, and yet writers fail to do it all the time. In the language of journalism, writing in a way that makes it hard to find the central point is called “burying the lede” (the word “lede” is a bit of newsroom jargon, with a deliberately odd spelling so it stands out). Sometimes writers bury the lede intentionally to spur curiosity and intrigue. The New Yorker is famous for stories that spend a lot of time establishing mood and setting before revealing the central idea or conflict. But practical communications aren’t relaxed literary voyages, and they shouldn’t be written like them.
Rule 2: Separate Distinct Ideas
Another way to help busy readers orient themselves quickly in the landscape of your writing is to separate distinct topics. Putting space between them makes it easier for the reader to skim and to scan for key information. A simple first step is to give each distinct topic its own paragraph, since a new paragraph visually signals a new set of ideas.
Rule 3: Place Related Ideas Together
Related ideas usually have related meanings, so placing them next to each other can make it possible to consolidate content and cut words. This “less is more” benefit can often be accomplished simply by reordering the text.
Fourth Principle: Use Enough Formatting but No More
Rule 1: Match Formatting to Readers’ Expectations
Busy readers should never need to stop and question what you mean by the bolded (or italicized, highlighted, underlined, etc.) text. You can head off that confusion by understanding your readers’ interpretations or by being explicit about your own. Once the writer and readers agree on the meanings, formatting can be highly effective for making messages easy to read, understand, and engage with.
Rule 2: Highlight, Bold, or Underline the Most Important Ideas
They increase the likelihood that readers read the formatted words, but they can decrease the reading of everything else. Used well, these tools can help readers locate and understand the most important information. But used ineffectively, they can undermine writers’ goals. As with all aspects of effective writing, you need to know your reader and you need to know your goals.
Rule 3: Limit Your Formatting
Avoid formatting multiple items when you particularly want your reader to focus on just one. Sometimes you really do want the reader to focus on more than one place, however the authors are often asked, “What should I do if I have three (or more) important items that all need to be addressed in the same message?”
Their first response tends to be asking whether all the information genuinely is important. If the answer is yes, then ask whether all the information needs to be included in a single message. If the answer is yes again, the writer now has to be extremely judicious in applying formatting.
Fifth Principle: Tell Readers Why They Should Care
Rule 1: Emphasize What Readers Value (“So what?”)
When readers regard a topic as personally relevant, they will exert more effort to understand it, read more deeply, and recall more content they’ve all noticed subjectively: People tend to devote more time and effort to things that affect them directly. In one study, the psychologist Richard Petty and his colleagues asked undergraduate students to read about a college policy under consideration, such as creating an exam requirement for graduation. When students were told that the college they currently attended was considering the policy, they read the policy more carefully and fully than when they were told a college in another state was considering it.
Rule 2: Emphasize Which Readers Should Care (“Why me?”)
Accurately predicting what ideas readers will care about is difficult, so another useful strategy is to target your message by emphasizing which readers should care. If a message seems generic and impersonal, readers may broadly presume that it is not relevant and ignore it. In that case, the specific readers for whom the message is relevant might miss out on valuable information.
You probably know the experience of getting a mass email about a company outing you care nothing about or notifications about a distant acquaintance’s vacation adventures. As long as the messages were clear up front about who they were aimed at, you probably ignored them and went about your day. If you wasted your time reading something irrelevant, though, you may have felt irritated, even cheated. To write effectively, bring that perspective to your own writing; be clear about who you expect will care and why they should care. Such targeting will make your messages more personal to the readers you are trying to reach and less disruptive to the ones you aren’t.