Writing clearly: the value of simplicity in writing

Jo Sutton


6 min read

There’s some wise advice offered to any fresh-faced journalism student or cadet journalist: “Keep it simple stupid”. Those who’ve been in the business for a while know the role of the journalist isn’t to inspire or to motivate, although these might be secondary goals. The journalist’s primary goal is to provide the facts – as simply as possible, writing clearly to ensure their message is understood.

Frustratingly, this advice isn’t always followed by those outside (or even inside) the news media. In fact, much of the product and services content found online is full of complex language and industry jargon. This can leave people unable to complete basic tasks, or worse still – feeling alienated and frustrated by the brand they turned to for help.

Writing clearly and embracing simplicity in writing empowers users and strengthens brands. And there are tips for clear writing that can help you achieve clarity in writing.

What is ‘readability’ and why is it important?

Readability refers to how easy written content is to understand. Commonly, readability is measured by ‘readability scores’ or ‘reading levels’, both of which relate to the level of education someone needs to have to understand the text. Complex words, industry jargon and longer sentences drive up the reading level. Simple words and shorter sentences keep it down, contributing to clarity in writing.

Why is this important? Because if content is too difficult to understand – or to grasp quickly – people won’t engage with it.

The Australian Government measures the country’s literacy levels and recommends writing clearly at a reading level of grade seven, or for an age of 12-14 years. This means about 83% of the population will be able to understand it.1

What’s important to note is that the government’s research shows older Australians are among those with the lowest literacy levels, as well as people from non-English speaking backgrounds.2 We already know that older Australians can also struggle to navigate digital platforms – so writing clearly and embracing simplicity in writing for them becomes even more important.

Let’s also remember that even those with a high level of education may still be time poor. They’ll appreciate simple language just as much as the person who reads at a lower level because it will allow them to engage quickly and move onto their next task.

How to write content people will understand.

Write simply

Write with intention and write as simply as you can. Don’t use unnecessary words or lengthy phrases if they’re not important to your message. Literacy aside, remember your reader/user also has limited time. They’ll likely be coming to your platform with a task they want to complete as quickly as possible. Your job is to help them do it, not to overwhelm them with information.

Once you’ve worked out what you want to say and what you want users to do, write content that’s easy for people to understand.

Here are a few tips for clear writing to help you embrace simplicity in writing:

  1. Opt for shorter simpler words. Why say ‘commence’ when you can say ‘start’? Or ‘be of service’ when you could just say ‘help’?
  2. Keep sentences short.
  3. Use subheadings and dot point lists to break up copy and help the reader who might be skim reading.
  4. Avoid industry jargon. If you must use it, make sure you explain it.
  5. Spell out an acronym the first time you introduce it.

Use a readability checker

Once you’ve written your content, run it through a readability checker. There are dozens online that allow you to paste your copy in; some even allow you to edit on the spot. While these checkers won’t tell you how to write, or if your content makes sense, they will give you an idea of how simple it is, helping you ensure you're writing clearly.

Just a tip to keep in mind – the results can vary between checkers as some set the bar a little lower or higher than others. It’s best to try a few to get a feel for which level you’re writing to. Or check out my favourite – Readability Formulas – which averages out seven readability formulas and pushes you to write your absolute best.

A final thought: simple language is the smarter choice.

Remember this:

Writing clearly and using simple language does not dumb down your brand or make it sound less important or knowledgeable. It does the opposite.

If you can take a complex topic and explain it in a simple way, it shows you know what you’re talking about. Most importantly, it allows the people you’re writing for to understand it too – which is the whole point isn’t it?

Write simply and with intention and you’ll have many more happy customers.

P.S. This article is written at a reading level of 12-14 years. Copy and paste it here if you’d like to see for yourself.

1 On the level with readability

2 Country Note Australia – Survey of Adult Skills first results

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