5 writing tips to help readers hoist aboard your meaning

Whether it’s in an email, a report or a book chapter, do you sometimes struggle to make your writing easier to follow?

What are the ways to create a smooth flow that guides your readers?

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Here are a few tips to improve your writing:

  • Use subheads. These concise intros help readers skim your content and quickly discern what’s to follow. Also, subheads indicate a change of subject and allow readers to find it quickly. Your guide: new subject, new subhead.
  • Convey one idea per paragraph. Overloading a paragraph with multiple concepts creates difficulty for readers trying to follow your meaning. In an email about a talk, for example, you’d use three separate paragraphs: one explaining the subject of the talk, one explaining who the presenter is, and the third showing the date, time, and place of the event. You can also add subheads to distinguish each paragraph.
  • Use bullets points and numbered lists. When you list similar things (such as names, steps, benefits, requirements), you help readers recognize similar content quickly. With lists, you can leave out transitional words that paragraphs demand. It helps the understanding when you use the same part of speech (e.g., a verb or a noun) at the beginning of each point. Note: In a list, when the order of the points matters, use numbers; otherwise, use bullets.
  • Vary sentence length. Although concise sentences are easy to read, a string of short sentences can feel disjointed. Add interest by varying the length of your sentences. My rule of thumb is keeping sentences shorter than 21 words, so readers can easily follow the meaning.
  • Vary sentence structure. Building your sentences in the order of subject-verb-object is simple and clear, but if all your sentences are constructed that way, it can become monotonous. Along with varying sentence length, break the mold of standard sentence structure.

Practice these simple ways to make your writing easy to follow, and you’ll enjoy better responses from your readers.

Barbara McNichol is an editor based on Arizona. A version of this post first appeared on the Ruthless Editor blog.

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