1. What matters most to your audience? Start with that!
Think about your audience: who are they and which part of your communication is most important for them? What do they need to do?
Put the key message first in the:
- first words in email subject lines, headers, sentences
- first paragraph of emails, documents and web pages
- first sentence in a paragraph
2. Say “you” and “we”
Address your audience directly. Speaking to people in the third person creates distance and is confusing.
- You – not the client, members, students, staff, the patient, the applicant
- We – not your organisation, business or department
3. Use active verbs most of the time
The active voice makes it easy to see who is doing what. It's clear who needs to take action and what they need to do.
- Send the application to… – not “The application needs to be sent to…” Use the passive only when you want to avoid assigning blame: “the fine hasn’t been paid” is less confrontational than “you haven’t paid the fine.”
4. Write short sentences and paragraphs
- Best average sentence length: 15-20 words. But vary the length to keep your audience’s attention
- Keep paragraphs short: one topic per paragraph
- Cut out padding and unnecessary politeness: people prefer clear instructions to waffle
5. Use lists
- Use bullets to make multiple points easy to scan.
- Use numbered lists to break down sequential steps.
6. Use the simplest words that work in the context
People do understand the longer words, but their brains have to work much harder. ● Need – not require or requirement
- Tell – not inform
- Help – not assist or assistance
- Extra or more – not additional
- If you ask – not on request
7. Avoid nominalisations
They are nouns (thing words) made out of verbs (action words). They make it hard to understand who is doing what.
- Fail – not failure
- Available – not availability
- Engage – not engagement
- Investigate – not investigation
- Refuse – not refusal
8. Edit yourself – use the Hemingway app
Paste draft text into the hemingwayapp.com, which:
- highlights long sentences, passive voice and adverbs and offers suggestions
- lets you edit on-screen to improve your text
- gives a readability score
9. Use pair-writing
Get a colleague to help you craft key communications and documents, especially if they will be shared with many people. Critical questions they could ask:
- Who’s your target audience?
- Is this really the best angle from the audience point of view?
- Are the key points the audience cares about at the top?
10. Check the accessibility of your work for example using the Accessibility Checker in Microsoft Office.