Clarity in Writing: How to Make Your Words Digestible

Fancy-pants words, ambiguity, and complexity are the enemies of good copy. Clarity is one of the main principles of writing content that people will read. Learn how to make your copy clear and simple.

Do you ever find some content on the internet and read it through and then think ‘what was that all about?’ Clarity is what's missing from a lot of content. Fancy language and complicated sentences make your writing indigestible.

Read on to learn how to make it meaningful and engaging instead. 

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Why copy needs to be clear and simple

Do you know why it's so important for content to be clear and simple? Because clarity helps the reader see the value in the content. If people can't understand what you're trying to say, then your content is not useful, right? On the other hand, when your message is crystal clear, it is very likely to resonate with people. 

Most of us don't really know how clarity is produced. I talk about what makes writing clear and simple in my book From Reads To Leads. It's about 11 principles of writing content people will read and respond to. One of these principles is Clarity Helps You Convey Meaning.

In this blog post, we'll talk about what makes copy simple to walk through and easy to understand. But you should definitely get the book for more insights.

Good copy doesn’t waste people’s brainpower with dressed-up pretentious words that convey obscure meanings. It gets the message across. 

The opposite of simple and clear looks something like this:

Leveraging technology – often commoditized – to orchestrate connected users towards new and efficient value-creating interactions holds the key to the business models of the future.

Did you get what the author is talking about? “Leveraging,” “commoditized,” “orchestrate,” “value-creating interactions,” “business models”—all these phrases are clichés and jargon. They do nothing to help the user understand the idea. Let’s clean it up and put it in order:

Online marketplaces where people connect with each other in order to create value are the business models of the future.

Now it makes more sense, doesn’t it? 

Let’s summarize what simple and clear copy does.


Clear copy uses words everyone knows

Figurative language, rare idioms, and jargon are difficult to process. If that complex word you want to use isn’t an important term in your field, don’t throw it in just to sound smart. Explain it. You can do that by using metaphors and analogies, or by specifying what the term you want to use means in everyday English. For example:

Startups leverage the social graph (your friends on Facebook) to flood users with invitations to join their networks.

If you have a glossary page on your website, you can also link your complex word to a definition on this page. 

Clear copy consists of short words and sentences

However tempting it might feel to write the word “utilize,” don’t use a long word where a short one will do. “Use” is shorter, simpler, more common, and more digestible. If you need a synonym, “apply” or “employ” will do better than “utilize.” Short words are easier to consume, just like short sentences. 

Long sentences are a disaster. Most often, a sentence gets long when the writer tries to jam multiple thoughts into it. There’s no better way to confuse your readers. Check out this sentence:

Let’s take a look at how to protect your computer from malware to learn how backups of files must be implemented to protect against ransomware attacks and what features are needed.

There are a whole bunch of thoughts in this sentence:

  • You should protect your computer from malware.
  • You’ll learn how file backups must be implemented.
  • Backups protect against ransomware attacks.
  • You need certain backup features that will be revealed in this article. 

No wonder the sentence is hard to follow. How about we make it shorter and more focused?

Let’s look at how you can implement backups of your files to protect your computer against malware. 

I cut the fat and left the words that do the one thing the author wants to do—tell the reader that the text that follows is about how to implement backups. 

Never put everything in one sentence. See if you can get rid of excessive messages or break up your ideas into parts. Information packed into bite-sized chunks is simple to read and clear to understand.

Clear copy avoids ambiguity 

Ambiguity is the absence of clarity. When you use words and phrases that may have two or more possible meanings, it makes readers stop and say, “Wait. What?” Most often, ambiguity results from poor word choices. Look at this example:

Traditionally, the logistics industry is segmented into three parts: shippers, brokers, and carriers. The system, which involves middlemen, has a flaw at its very core and needs a more effective solution. This could also reduce freight costs. 

Wait. What? What does “this” in the last sentence refer to? Most likely, the writer is using “this” to refer back to the whole sentence. But the relationship between “this” and “the system, which involves middlemen has a flaw at its very core and needs more effective solutions” is unclear, and so the meaning is ambiguous. 

When you want to use a pronoun such as “it,” “that,” “this,” or “which,” keep in mind that it can replace a singular noun antecedent in a clause or sentence, but it can’t replace the whole sentence. A pronoun with a vague reference leaves the reader confused as to what or to whom the pronoun refers. 

There are at least three ways to rewrite the sentence above to make it clear:

  1. Replace “this” with an “if” clause:
Traditionally, the logistics industry is segmented into three parts: shippers, brokers, and carriers. The system, which involves middlemen, has a flaw at its very core and needs a more effective solution. If we could eliminate the middlemen in logistics, we could reduce freight costs. 
  1. Add “solution” after “this”:
Traditionally, the logistics industry is segmented into three parts: shippers, brokers, and carriers. The system, which involves middlemen, has a flaw at its very core and needs a more effective solution. With this solution, we could reduce freight costs. 
  1. Add “one” before “that”:
Traditionally, the logistics industry is segmented into three parts: shippers, brokers, and carriers. The system, which involves middlemen, has a flaw at its very core and needs a more effective solution: one that can also reduce freight costs. 

Sometimes, writers choose ambiguous words and phrases because they want to dress up their copy. But this creates unclarity. For example, the sentence “let’s find out how to be on the same wavelength with your users” isn’t precise. What does the writer mean exactly by “wavelength”? Do they mean to understand your users? Feel connected to them? Feel close to them? This phrase is ambiguous. “Let’s find out how to understand your users” is a much better way to express what you mean.

Clear copy doesn't sound "smart"

In content writing, there’s no point in trying to sound smart. What you want is to be smart. Fancy-pants words increase the distance between you and your readers. And this distance prevents you from inspiring the actions you’re looking for. 

Any time you want to use a word that makes you feel smarter than your readers, stop and think again. As Elmore Leonard said, “If it sounds like writing… rewrite it.” Deliver your content without getting in the way. The best writing happens when you remain invisible.

Read next:

What is readability?

How to write inclusive content


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