Thursday, April 7, 2016

The elements of clear writing: Helping the medicine go down

Originally posted February 2, 2012;
reposted here with minor edits.

In one of the closing episodes of the series “Monk,” Adrian Monk, who is a brilliant detective with OCD, has been poisoned. As a result, he’s been given medication in the form of a capsule that contains red, yellow, and blue grains.

Adrian opens the capsule and empties the contents onto a clean cloth, then using a knife he sorts them into three groups. He takes his medicine, one color at a time.

Good writing, in a nutshell, is clear, concise, complete, and – this is important – clever. Good writing gets your message delivered. Period.

A challenge to being clear is making the complex uncomplicated. This is especially challenging when a memo, article, or speech needs to address several elements among which are many possible connections and inter-relations.

While breaking pills apart isn’t a good way to take your medicine – there’s a reason the grains are inside a capsule – this is actually a good example of how to make something complex more easily graspable.

Break it down to make it clear

Most messages are made up of several elements. The most common are who, what, where, why, when, and how. Outlining your message before you begin writing it so you can get a clear handle on the various elements and their connections is a good way to break them out for your own purposes.

Use whatever method works best for you. Perhaps writing individual elements on 3x5 cards and tacking them to your bulletin board or mapping your message on a white board works best for you.

Essentially, you’re breaking apart the capsule and separating the colors. This allows you to see through to the heart of your message.

Keep to the essentials to make it concise

Weigh the elements and determine what the true essentials of your message are. In the capsule analogy, there are three colors. Within these color groups are several grains which can represent the finer details.

Determine the primary “color groups” or overarching themes of your message. Within these groups, list the “grains” or details, and then sift them down to the essentials. Eliminate items that are actually superfluous and combine those that are similar.

Structure the essential elements of your message in a logical progression. Present them in a way that shows how they build on one another.

Wrap it all in context to make it complete

In the pill analogy, the capsule holding the grains is the context. Context ties up loose ends and holds the message together.

In a change message, context will explain where you are, where you’re going, and why this needs to happen. Often change messages are merely announcements of what’s going to be new with no rationale as to why this is happening, and worse, with no clear statement of what’s being changed from. Without including context, change messages are met with resistance.

In a re-branding message, context provides the historical connection. It acknowledges the value of the past, connects the past to the present, and then points to the future.

Context and background provide the foundation on which you can build your message.

Write it well to make it clever

Now that you’re ready to put it all together, write it to resonate and connect with your audience. Avoid ambiguity and jargon, but use language and sentence structure that emulates the way your audience thinks and talks.

Incorporate relevant analogies that echo their worldview and experience. Help your audience see, hear, taste, touch, feel, and smell the message through relevant language and idiom.

Don’t be afraid to toss in a touch of humor. But be sure it’s humor that won’t offend or confuse. Keep it simple.

If you know your audience well, your writing ear will be tuned into their frequency and your message will come together just right.

Make it pretty to make it sweet

Once you’ve crafted the message, work with a designer to add graphics, photos, and other elements to make your message even more clear. Formatting will also have a big impact on the clarity of your message.

Break apart the paragraphs, add subheads, and use other touches (sparingly) to help your reader follow the path of your message’s logic.

But a caution regarding graphics and formatting: Pretty colors can never fix a poorly written message. Back to the pill analogy, if the grains in the capsule are the right colors but the wrong medicine, the patient’s going to be in big trouble once it’s swallowed.

But good design can be the sugar that helps the medicine of a well-crafted message get delivered, making a positive difference just as the doctor ordered.

Do you hate writing? Love writing? Do you think the suggestions in this post helpful? Why or why not? Do you have other tips for improving writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments

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