The future of writing is simple

People have a habit of over-complicating things. Our challenges. Our thoughts. And especially the language we use. 

Ranging from putting too many words or ideas in a sentence to using a passive voice instead of an active voice. We like to make it complicated. 

Lots of people assume that using long, fancy words makes them sound smart. But in reality it reduces comprehension, readability, and understability. And it’s far more difficult to express a nuanced idea concisely than it is to do it in 10 sentences. 

So, in the spirit of simplicity, let’s look at why simple writing works and how to do it. 

Why simple writing works

You should always be able to read a whole sentence out loud in a single breath. Shorter sentences ensure a concise style, while longer ones tend to ramble. Complicated writing makes the intention and goal of your content difficult to decipher, and more challenging to engage with. 

You want your content to be accessible and easy to understand — because amazing customer experiences can’t happen if you’re confusing your customers. An American Press Institute report found a correlation between shorter sentences and reading comprehension. For sentences that were:

  • Eight words or less, readers understood 100 percent of the information.
  • 14 words long, readers understood 90 percent of the information.
  • 43 words or longer, comprehension dropped to less than 10 percent.

So sentence length has a big impact on how well people understand your content. And considering that the average person spends six hours and 59 minutes per day consuming digital content, it’s never been more important to keep the attention of your readers once you have it. 

A study by Cornell accounting professor Kristina Rennekamp uncovered the consequences of poor corporate writing. Rennekamp got readers to review two financial press releases, one the actual version and the other an edit of the release using simple language as outlined in the SEC’s Plain English Handbook. The handbook advocates for short sentences, the active voice, concrete words, minimizing jargon, and avoiding multiple negatives. Not surprisingly, Rennekamp found that companies are more likely to engage readers if they use words that are easier to read. 

Simple writing works. It captures the reader’s attention in a crowded digital marketplace, makes content easy to understand, and leads the reader to take action. Now for the obvious next question — how do you write simply?

Ever wonder how clear and inclusive website content is across different industries? We analyzed how the biggest companies in the technology, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical and medical device industries performed. Find out who’s the best and worst in our State of Inclusivity reports. 

The State of Inclusivity in Financial Services How Inclusive and Clear Is the Financial Service Industry’s Web Content?

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How to write simply

Create content in a simple writing style. Sounds easy enough. But condensing content into direct and clear formulations can be challenging.

Bill Birchard, author of the Harvard Business Review’s article Research: Simple Writing Pays Off (Literally), has some tips for simple writing:

  • Use fewer ads. Focus on strong verbs and nouns because adverbs and adjectives often disrupt clarity by adding unnecessary words. 
  • Break it down. Split up complex and long sentences and thoughts. In that sense, the end of a sentence never comes soon enough.
  • Cut caveats. Every topic demands context and every argument demands exceptions. But focus on what really matters and cut the excess.
  • Clean out residue. Writers have a tendency to refine, reinforce, and reiterate. Make sure to strip out extraneous wording.
  • Keep it short. Don’t overwhelm your audience and don’t write more than they need.

These are some helpful tips. But by no means is this list exhaustive. We want to highlight more ways you can bring simplicity into your writing. 

Plain language

According to the Plain Writing Act of 2010, the definition of plain language is:

“Writing that is clear, concise, well organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.”

People are more likely to trust and act on information they understand. Plain language is clear communication that makes information accessible to a wider audience. It’s inclusive of culturally and linguistically diverse communities, and those with different literacy levels, cognitive abilities, and learning styles. Clear, readable communication of all kinds, usually does the following:

  • Knows what information your audience already understands or needs 
  • Is clear about what action the reader should take, or the purpose of the content
  • Explains key messages near the beginning of the document
  • Structures content so it’s easy to navigate
  • Considers font size and use of colors or white space around the text to improve accessibility

It takes time and practice to understand that messages don’t need to be complicated to be effective. Plain writing isn’t overly simplistic, nor does it take on a patronizing tone. Instead, try these 10 tips to increase the readability of your content using plain language.

  1. Use short sentences: aim for an average word count of 20 or less.
  2. Choose everyday words: the shorter the word, the more likely people will be familiar with it.
  3. Use summaries to present key information before going into detail.
  4. Divide each section of the document into roughly equal chunks.
  5. Write headings that help readers predict what’s coming next.
  6. Use strong verbs and write in an active voice.
  7. Leave out information that doesn’t help the reader complete the action or understand the main point you’re trying to make.
  8. Use images that help your audience understand the text.
  9. Be consistent. Use the same terminology when referring to the same process, technical term, product, or service.
  10. Check with your target audience (whenever possible) to see if they find your content truly useful.

If you’re interested in learning more about the relationship between plain language and readability, check out this blog

Scannability 

Simple writing is structured with scannability in mind. 

One of the biggest challenges enterprises face is how to present highly technical, instructional, or complex content in an engaging and meaningful way. Because when your audience can’t easily find or understand the information they need, they become confused and frustrated. So writers need to make sure their content includes: 

  • Clear titles
  • List organization
  • Table formatting
  • Concise paragraphs
  • Focused documents 

Scannability helps make your content more accessible for all readers. Similar to the principles of plain language writing, scannability focuses on the structure and design of your content so it’s clear and easy to understand. This means readers easily find what they need, understand what they find, and turn that information into action.

Brevity 

Concise and exact use of language in writing makes it simple and easy to understand.

Conciseness is the ratio of ideas to words. The fewer words you use to convey an idea, the more concise you are. In practice, that means you need to be less wordy and more direct. Don’t be afraid of clearly expressing your ideas. 

As a writer, you need to get to the main idea quickly, using clear writing and simple sentences. Focusing on brevity doesn’t mean you have to leave out important details. It means getting to them quicker by avoiding unnecessary context and words.

Simple writing: The path to amazing experiences

The future of writing is simple. Reading should be a seamless experience by providing clear information that makes it easy to take action. Acrolinx can help you get there. With guidance on clarity, consciousness, and scannability, your content will be easy to understand and consume in no time. Let’s talk to see how we can help your organization. 

The State of Inclusivity in Financial Services How Inclusive and Clear Is the Financial Service Industry’s Web Content?

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Charlotte Baxter-Read

is a Communications and Content Manager at Acrolinx, bringing over three years of experience in content creation, strategic communications, and public relations. Additionally, Charlotte is the Executive Producer of the WordBirds podcast — sponsored by Acrolinx. She holds a Master’s degree from the John F. Kennedy Institute, at Freie Universität Berlin, and a Bachelor's degree from Royal Holloway, University of London. Charlotte, along with the Acrolinx Marketing Team, won a Silver Stevie Award at the 18th Annual International Business Awards® for Marketing Department of the Year. She's a passionate reader, communicator, and avid traveler in her free time.