How to write clear and concise copy

By Antonia Kanczula, Managing Editor

Think about the times you’ve been presented with a long, dense report, article or email full of sprawling sentences and paragraphs, and words you don’t understand. A total turn-off, isn’t it? You probably didn’t make it to the end, never mind take anything from it.

Whoever your audience is, whatever you’re writing about – lean, punchy copy is vital. It gets your message across loud, clear and quickly. And it’s definitely not about dumbing down your copy – it’s about making it smarter.

We explain precisely why clear and concise copywriting matters and equip you with some easy techniques to streamline your writing.

Why clear and concise copy matters (a lot)

Lots of adults find reading and writing challenging. Probably more than you think, in fact. For example, one in six adults in England – so around 7.1 million people in total – have very low literacy skills as defined by the UK National Literacy Trust. That’s 16.4% of England’s population. In Scotland, it’s around one in four adults, one in eight in Wales and one in five in Northern Ireland.

Many people also live with a condition that affects their literacy skills. For example, around 10% of people in the UK have some level of dyslexia and more than 2 million people live with some form of vision loss.

In addition, think about the number of people in the UK who don’t speak English as a first language. In 2018, 51% of adults born overseas (around 3.2 million people) reported using a language other than English as their first language at home.

And added to this mix, consider the nature of modern life. Research shows that our attention span is being narrowed by daily digital overload. People just don’t have the time or the inclination to read stodgy copy.

When you consider the potential barriers to getting your message across, you realise that clarity isn’t a nice-to-have. It’s essential.

Understanding how people consume copy

But producing compelling copy is about more than keeping it short. How you structure it matters too, particularly online.

This is because users don’t usually read online copy word-by-word, line-by-line.

User experience experts the Nielsen Norman Group have been monitoring how people consume online content for more than two decades. In this time, the internet has changed beyond recognition and consumption levels have rocketed.

But it says that one fundamental truth of our behaviour remains the same: we rarely read online; we scan. Nor do we cover all, or even most, of the text in a linear way. Instead, we have ‘scan patterns’. These include the ‘layer cake’ scan: scanning headings and subheadings that stand out, so we quickly find what we need.

Simple ways to make your writing easier to read

It’s demoralising to hear people might not be reading your perfectly crafted prose. But conversely, you can use these insights to your advantage.

At Thrive, we know that adapting our health content to user behaviour gives it momentum. Web copy that gets straight to the point is persuasive. And we want to empower readers to get the information they need quickly – and to act on it – because this information is often life changing.

As clear writing aficionado Mark Morris, former head of Clear Writing at the Department of Health says: “If you want your writing to achieve its goal, then do all you can to make life easy for your reader.”

And there are lots of simple ways to bring clarity to what you write.

  1.     Put the important stuff first

Front load your information: get across what you need to at the top of the page in case people read no further. And organise your headings and paragraphs in a similar way.

  1.     Structure your copy

Use punchy subheadings and bullet points to break up your copy.

Bullet points are great for a variety of reasons:

  •      they allow you to capture attention
  •      they organise information
  •      you can cover ground quickly
  1.     Use punchy sentences and short paragraphs

Make sure your copy has breathing space. Always choose short words over longer, more complicated ones and remove any unnecessary words altogether. Aim for under 100 words or four sentences – although one-sentence paragraphs are fine too. And chunk your information: cover one main idea per paragraph.

  1.     Write naturally

When you turn your writing into a conversation, you inject natural clarity and help to capture your readers’ attention. So, write how you talk. This way you’ll use contractions (it’s, you’ll, there’s), second person perspective (you) and an active voice. And you’ll avoid jargon and technical language too.

  1.     Check your work

An easy way to make sure your copy is clear and concise is to read it out loud. This highlights longer sentences, difficult words, awkward phrases and helps to improve readability.

It’s easy to make mistakes when you’re working quickly, so have a break from your copy. Leave your writing for 24 hours then read it again. You’ll be surprised how much more you can shave off. Get a second pair of eyes – ask someone to check what you’ve done. And try some online tools: like Grammarly and Hemingway Editor – they’re great for final copy checks and finetuning.

Antonia is the Managing Editor at Thrive. She is responsible for overseeing our team of editors and delivering engaging health content.

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