In content, there’s not much worse than bad writing.
Bad writing can turn a great idea into muddled gibberish.
Bad writing can make you sound silly or unintelligent – even if you’re a smart cookie.
Bad writing is easy to spot but notoriously difficult to fix if you don’t know what you’re doing.
As it turns out, writing clear sentences is both an art and a science.
When you get it right, your content sings.
On the flip side, when you get it wrong, you end up complicating simple ideas. You lead your readers down confusing paths and lose your overall impact.
What’s a writer to do?
Learn how to write clear sentences. Learn how to cut the fat from your writing to improve clarity, but keep your unique voice intact. Today, we’re sharing our best tips to help you do it. Ready to tighten up your writing?
Your Guide to Writing Clear Sentences: Our 6 Top Tips
1. Beware Meaningless Filler Words
If you’re not paying attention, meaningless filler words can sneak into your writing. Like so:
If you’re not paying attention, there are meaningless filler words that can sneak into your writing.
These bloat your sentences with useless gunk. The most common perpetrators include the phrases you see in bold above, plus their variations:
“It” or “there” + “be” verbs:
- There are
- There is
- There were
- It is
- It was
Generally, most sentences can live without “it” or “there” + a “be” verb (is, are, was, were) followed by a noun and a relative clause (that, which, who). These types of phrases are called expletive constructions.
In other words, they have no meaning. They don’t help your sentences. Get rid of them!
It was my favorite time of year because of that crisp weather and falling leaves.
Slash those filler words, and you get a sentence that’s much more concise and to the point:
My favorite time of year has crisp weather and falling leaves.
Once you’re cognizant of filler words, you’ll start catching yourself using them. Pretty soon, your reflex will be to nix them altogether. You’ll be writing clear sentences unconsciously rather than cluttering them up.
2. Self-Edit & Bring in an Outside Editor
The best ways to catch and eliminate those filler words from point #1? Self-edit AND bring in an outside editor to check your work.
Because ruthless, constant editing is one of the best methods to clarify and simplify your writing. Multiple editing passes help distill your thoughts and ideas down to their clearest forms.
This is also a top tip from one of my copywriting heroes, Henneke Duistermaat.
In my interview with her for The Write Podcast, she mentions paying attention to the corrections your editor makes. Listen to their feedback! That way, you’ll learn as you move forward and avoid committing those errors again.
You’ll be writing clearer sentences in no time.
Tune into this episode for more writing tips from Henneke!
3. Write Shorter to Write Clearer
Do your sentences tend to go on… and on… and on?
To write clear sentences, write shorter. Slash your sentences in half. Insert periods instead of commas.
Take this example from a fashion blog:
I’ve been wearing a lot of old favorites and remixing closet classics this season, but if there’s one thing I can’t resist buying every autumn it’s a cozy knit!
It’s unnecessarily long. The main idea gets lost along the way (she can’t resist a cozy knit). If we shorten this up, we can make it clearer and more impactful.
For instance, we can start by splitting the sentence in two. All we have to do is look for the comma and add a period, instead:
I’ve been wearing a lot of old favorites and remixing closet classics this season. But, if there’s one thing I can’t resist buying every autumn, it’s a cozy knit!
Better. Now we can omit filler words and cut this down even more:
I’ve been wearing lots of old favorites and remixing closet classics this season. But, every autumn, I can’t resist buying a cozy knit!
The shorter sentences help us follow this train of thought better. The whole thing is clearer and less meandering, so we get to the point quicker. (This helps hold your readers’ interest!)
Speaking of the main point, that’s another great tip to remember:
4. Don’t Bury the Lede (The Main Subject of Your Sentences)
In journalism-speak, the “lede” is the main subject of your writing. (Copy editors and journalists started spelling it “lede” to help distinguish it from the “lead” in typesetting.)
When you “bury the lede,” you unintentionally hide the main point of your writing.
Not good. Why?
Because clear sentences begin with the main subject.
This is a good example of burying the lede from The MLA Style Center:
“Known for her unmatched skills as a hostess – after all, she had been a debutante who became a socialite whose husband sat on the boards of half a dozen of the city’s most prestigious cultural organizations – Mary felt right at home discussing her plan for the summer fund-raising luncheon with the museum director.”
The subject of this uber-long sentence is Mary. Where is Mary? We can’t find her in the sentence until 209 characters have gone by.
Another good example of burying the lede in a sentence: using the passive voice.
Her plan for the summer fundraising luncheon was discussed by Mary and the museum director.
Passive voice buries the subject of the sentence at the end. We have no idea who is discussing the plan for summer fundraising until the very last words.
Instead, we should put the subject at the beginning:
Mary and the museum director discussed her plan for the summer fundraising luncheon.
That way, our readers won’t have to play detective to figure out who (or what) we’re talking about. This is a major key to writing clear sentences.
5. Avoid Redundancies to Improve Sentence Clarity
Redundancy can be a clear sentence killer.
It happens when you add different words with the same meaning to a sentence, or repeat words or phrases unnecessarily.
The above example of redundancy is obvious. However, it can be subtle, too:
- We’re planning to meet at 12 o’clock midnight.
- Don’t revert back to your old ways.
- She will briefly summarize the report.
All of the above sentences are short, but they can be clarified by removing the redundancies.
- We’re planning to meet at midnight. (12 o’clock and midnight both refer to 12:00 a.m.)
- Don’t revert to your old ways. (“Revert” means to return or go back to a previous state.)
- She will summarize the report. (A summary is brief by definition.)
This chart from the Speak Good English group on Facebook is a great resource to help you avoid common redundancies:
6. Use Writing Tools to Hone Your Craft
Final tip: Don’t forget to use all the writing tools at your disposal. There are plenty of great ones out there that can help you craft clearer sentences.
- I regularly recommend Hemingway Editor because it focuses on simplifying your writing, Hemingway-style.
- To check out the readability score of your writing, plug it into Readable.io. It tells you what education level a person needs to be able to understand your work. The lower the grade level score, the easier it is to read.
- Adding the Grammarly plug-in to your word processor or browser is a good way to catch usage errors while you self-edit.
Writing Clear Sentences: It’s in the Bag
The key to writing clear sentences is recognizing when your grammar gets sloppy. It’s knowing what filler words look like and how passive voice sounds.
The best way to learn all of these concepts is to edit, edit, edit.
Self-edit all your writing. Then, hand your writing over to a trusted editor. Listen carefully to their feedback and add it to your writing toolbox.
If you’re still struggling, enlist high-quality editing and grammar tools. They’ll help whittle down your writing further.
Don’t worry: You CAN and WILL improve. It just takes practice! ✍️
Writing isn’t easy.
Writing content that gets read.
Even if you produce a stellar piece of content in terms of quality, length, and depth, it will not get read if it’s not a good read.
The most viral, shared, and successful content is addictively readable. It’s the type where you read half the piece without realizing it. It sucks you into its universe. It takes you somewhere.
It sounds like this type of content is sprinkled with fairy dust or touched by a unicorn.
At its core, it’s just readable.
There are other factors at play, but the foundation of the content rests on that one little thing.
So, how do you make your content more readable?
There are a few tricks you can use to infinitely improve your chances of getting read.
First, you have to understand what we mean by “readable.”
What Readable Content Looks Like
Readable content is not just well-written and error-free. It has some other attributes baked right in, ones that help push the reader from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph.
1. It’s Well-Researched
Readable content leaves the reader with zero doubts or questions. It answers all of them, and it provides the sources to back it all up. This content is readable precisely because you trust the writer leading you through it.
All the way through the article, blog post, or what-have-you, that writer consistently reestablishes that trust with evidence of good research.
Content that isn’t readable makes claims but doesn’t provide evidence. It doesn’t cite sources. It’s a mish-mash of hasty assumptions, stolen ideas, and personal opinions that teach absolutely no one anything.
Which would you rather read?
2. It’s Not Stuffy
Readable content is also written in plain language. Anybody can read it, learn from it, and enjoy it.
That’s key – a big component that helps lots of content go viral.
Stuffy content, meanwhile, reads like a college textbook. It’s dry and boring. There’s no life or personality behind the words. They convey meaning, but there’s nothing there to keep pulling you in.
If you sound snobby, or like you’re trying to show off your extensive vocabulary, nobody will want to read your content. If you write like a robot, nobody will want to read your content.
For these reasons, Convince and Convert recommends keeping your content empathetic. Empathize with your readers, get on their level, and relate to them. It’s only when you place yourself above them that the stuffiness creeps in.
3. It Has a Unique Angle
The content flood is real. The internet is literally deluged with it – the good, the bad, and the laughable. It’s no wonder information fatigue is an actual condition people deal with.
As such, readable content is content that stands out from the masses of crap out there. That’s because it takes a unique, interesting angle on a topic that’s sunburned from seeing so much daylight.
Even if you’ve already read 50 articles about a topic, you’ll still want to take in a readable piece that explores it. Why? Because the angle is so interesting or novel. That’s the power of readability.
4. People Care About the Topic
The most likely reason a certain topic has received attention from hundreds of other bloggers and writers? Because people care about it.
After all, you can’t expect them to have any interest in a topic that doesn’t concern them. They won’t even be looking for it online.
That’s another key to readable content – you have to write about what people are searching for. You have to write stuff that speaks to what’s on their minds: their problems, concerns, worries, and interests. Keyword research can help you discover topics like these, but remember: You still need to approach it from that interesting or unique angle to stand out.
5. Readable Content Has the Right Tone
Content is readable when it hits a sweet spot regarding tone.
Tone is your style of speech. For example, you might speak one way to your three-year-old niece, and another way to your boss. You employ different tones to customize your speech for your audience.
In the same way, you need to hit the right tone for the audience you’re writing for.
When you get it just right – when you’re addressing the vast majority of your readers – that content hits home. It’s not just readable; it’s compulsively readable.
MailChimp has a great definition of their brand’s specific voice and tone in their Content Style Guide. It tells writers exactly how to address the brand’s main audience in their content:
What’s notable here is that MailChimp tells their writers to consider the reader’s emotional state and adjust their tone to fit. Writing for a reader experiencing a certain emotion is a great way to make content readable.
How to Make Your Content Addictively Readable
Now that you know what readable content looks like, you can craft your own content in the same vein.
If you want to make your content addictively readable, there are some extra tips that will help.
1. Don’t Use Passive Voice (Most of the Time)
Passive voice can be a death knell for any writer who overuses it. Write your entire article this way, and it will sound dull and strange. Take this great example from Paper Rater for how passive voice can convolute a perfectly fine idea:
There are, however, times when passive voice is perfectly warranted. For instance, you might want the focus of the sentence to be on the person or thing who received the action:
“I was hurt.” – It doesn’t matter who hurt me; instead, I want to emphasize my pain.
“The money was stolen.” – The money was important, not who stole it.
“George was saved by a paramedic.” – We want to know if George is okay, so we put him first.
The key is knowing when passive voice is okay and when it isn’t. To stay on the safe side, avoid it as often as you can, and check your writing for passive voice using tools like the Hemingway Editor.
2. Be Less Selfish
A great point from CoSchedule involves selfish writing: Using “I” more than “you.” If you’re guilty of this, you’re making your content far less interesting for the reader. The focus should be on them!
3. Read It Out Loud
A great way to discover if your content is readable is to… well… read it.
Don’t just skim it for misspellings and incorrect grammar, though. Read it out loud and pay attention to how it flows.
If it reads well out loud, you’re on the right track. Don’t forget to get at least one other person to read it in case you’re biased. That can mean overconfidence as well as crippling self-doubt. (Hey, I don’t judge.)
Ask them to read it out loud, too. They could even read it to you, which will help you understand how another reader approaches it.
This is the perfect way to nail a readable flow and keep your audience engaged.
4. This Sounds Weird But… Write One-Liner Paragraphs
Did you notice a pattern in this blog by now?
Good lookin’ out.
Yes, there is quite a majority of one-sentence paragraphs.
That’s not exactly AP English, is it?
But did you notice something?
It reads well.
It flows well.
Your eyes follow the one-liners.
Why does this work—and does it work?
SmartBlogger broke it down in their blog, How to Write a Paragraph in 2017 (Yes, the Rules Have Changed):
Basically, the paragraph has evolved because of the way we read media. There is so much media—content—on the web, that we must evolve into content formats that are extremely easy to read, thus getting our reader to stay on our pages the longest.
Copyblogger and SmartBlogger are led by some of the top thought leaders in the content marketing industry. Check out how the majority of paragraphs are one-liners:
Readable Content Will Help You Get Noticed
That sums up readable content in a nutshell – it keeps the audience riveted.
Each sentence pulls them along to the next, and the next, and the next.
When you take the time to produce quality content (and you should), you want it to get read.
Make it readable, and the ROI can follow.
If you need some help with the readability factor, Express Writers is here to help. Check out our Content Shop to see what we can do.
No matter if you’re a lawyer or agricultural field surveyor, your website and your services should be worded in a way that everyone on the world wide web can read and understand it. Ask yourself – Is my content smarter than a 5th grader? Don’t worry – we’re not exactly asking you to “dumb it down.” In fact, we get that you want your content to be smart and informative. This is more about making your web content reader-friendly. Stop trying to be the Charles Dickens of copywriting and begin crafting readable content.
What is Readability?
First off, let’s discuss what readability is when it comes to web content. You should know a few literacy facts before you begin writing. For example, National Law Review states that the average reading level in the United States is a seventh grade level with 1 in 5 American adults who can only read at a fifth grade or lower level. Creating something that is readable for a fifth grader is not just a catchy title for our blog; it is true. You need to write your content so that a fifth grader can read and understand it.
Now, not all of your readers will only be able to read at a fifth grade level, so let’s look at a few ways to make your content easier to read for everyone.
1. Stay Away from the Robo-Boogie. You want your content to rank in the search engine so people can find you, but if you write your content for a search engine you will find readers leaving ASAP. The people you are writing for are not the robots that pop your site up in a search result. If you write predominately for a search engine, your content will not be reader-friendly and will sound awkward because of all the keywords you stuff throughout your content. Don’t do that! Focus on writing on a personal level with a conversational tone. This makes your content easier to read and people can actually relate to you, which is what you want.
2. Jargon-Schmargon. A key part of keeping your content reader-friendly is to stay away from technical jargon. Yes, you may be writing content for legal or insurance companies, but you need to stay away from all the legalese. The general population will not understand most of it, and you want them to be able to relate to what they are reading and to seek out the company you are writing for. If you constantly use technical terms in your content, people will feel like your business will not work well with them and they will look elsewhere. Don’t let that happen! If you have to use institutional jargon, then give brief explanations or say that a friendly associate is willing to help people understand the terms. Make sure people will feel helped.
3. Utilize those Sub-headers. Sub-headers make reading any piece of content a cinch for readers. Copyblogger says that sub-headers engage readers throughout the entire piece and provide mental breaks for them. Sub-headers are like chapters in a book. Your mind knows to rest once you get to the next chapter, so too with sub-headers. You can use sub-headers to grab attention, to tell some information about the paragraph, and to provide an outline for readers. Many readers really enjoy outlines as they can read ahead and know what to expect throughout the article and if the article is interesting. This also helps for the readers who will not read the whole article. They will get the information they want simply by reading your sub-headers. If you don’t provide this, they’ll move on to other content.
4. Lists For the Win! You’ve seen them all over Facebook – lists are an absolute favorite of readers right now and they organize thoughts in short, concise sentences, sometimes offering descriptions. Lists are great ways to get your ideas across to your readers while keeping them engaged. They provide people with enough information and many will read a post in its entirety if it is in list format. Lists are easy to scan and if they are made in a bulleted format, they will stand out from the rest of your content. If someone is scanning your content for the bare information, that bulleted list is going to capture his or her attention pretty quick!
FTW – Simple Content
Matt Cutts recently came out and said (just this February 2014) that it’s better to write with “content clarity” rather than using technical language. He said to focus on clarity of writing and simplicity in words, rather than jargon or scientifically-important language. Way to back us up here, Matt!
By following these steps, you will be able to craft incredible and readable content. You will not have to sacrifice your information or feel that you are “dumbing down” your content because you will still be creating something that is done well. Readability is all about engaging readers, regardless of reading level, and helping them to learn more about your product or services in a simple, yet informative way. It is never too late to start crafting your wonderfully reader-friendly content!