Creating Online Content for Your Customers: Clarity

In a previous blog post I wrote about need for relevance in your online content – matching your presentation to the customer’s need and the purpose of the content piece. I added that an approachable style can underscore your content’s relevance. But what steps can you take to achieve that style?

To build your approachable style, focus on both clarity and accuracy. What’s the difference? Here’s my thinking:

  • Clarity is a matter of precision:  how well the content stays within the customer’s knowable and relatable realm. You help them understand without forcing them to work hard to do so.
  • Accuracy is a matter of reality:  how close the content comes to a customer’s actual experience. You help them achieve their goals – be successful – without leading them astray.

Content strategy guru Sarah O’Keefe told me that she agrees with these definitions.

Sarah reminded me that she places attributes of good content in a pyramid similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In that scheme, my definition of relevance would come closest to her definition of appropriate. And her definition of accuracy is broader than mine.

Mark Nichol tackles the idea of precision in content writing in a blog post for Daily Writing Tips.

I believe that working on all three – relevance, clarity, and accuracy – raises the quality level of your content and strengthens the connection between your content and your customer.

But you need to take conscious steps to work on them. In this blog post, I’ll focus on how to control clarity in your customer-facing online content.

Control Clarity: More on the Why

By controlling the clarity of your content, you help to make it accepted – and understood – by your intended audiences, including potential customers.

In other words, you build trust.

When your customers trust your content, they become more engaged in your message and more willing to read more and explore your brand more. Ultimately, they become more willing to invest in you.

More than likely, your first drafts will need some revision to meet the level of precision your audiences’ needs. To help you, I’ve assembled some tips on controlling your content’s clarity.   

Note that I have addressed how to identify your audiences and how to select content for them in previous blog posts:

Choose the Right Words

As you are selecting words to include in your content – whether a webpage, blog post, infographic, brochure or social media post – check that they are the right words to connect with your target audiences. Also check that your selected words project the right tone for your business.

The Audience Connection

A quick way to ensure you are choosing the right words for your audience is to ask yourself some questions:

  • If a customer asked me about this topic, service, or product, what words would they likely use in their questions?
  • What words do my competitors use to describe this topic or a similar service or product?
  • What words appear in my industry standards and guidelines to describe this topic or a similar service or product?

In previous blog posts, I advised that you use Google Analytics or conduct similar research to understand the vocabulary of your audience. I don’t mean merely making a list of keywords for SEO purposes. I mean looking at the network of concepts within your industry and finding the key terms associated with each.

Then look at the conversations among professionals. What topics are they discussing? How are they discussing them? Begin to converge these lists into a workable vocabulary for your content. You might also discover some potential customer concerns you can address in your content – or even potential new customers.

Next, begin to put processes in place to ensure that you are using each term on your list consistently. Untangle related terms; nail down confusing or ambiguous terms; sort uncommon terms from common terms. Focus on what you mean when you say “X” and stick with it. Through this process, you build a controlled vocabulary for your content.

The goal is end up with one term for one meaning. And one spelling, too. (Is it a backup, a back-up, or back up?)

The ultimate step, of course, is to build an organizational glossary. But let’s not get distracted by shiny objects.

The Business Connection

Another way to help with precision and building trust is to have a uniform tone in the type of words that you choose. This is an organizational decision.

Start with what kind of a relationship your organization wants to have with its customers:

  • Chatty and friendly?
  • Instructive and helpful?
  • Assertive and factual?
  • Reverential and empathetic?

After you have agreement on the organization-to-customers relationship type, you can make some decisions about words and messages that project the right tone in your content. For example, do you:

  • Address your audiences as “you”?
  • Use English language contractions?
  • Include adverbs such as “really,” “very,” and “quickly”?
  • Indulge in funny (non-offensive) slang? Use emoticons? Emojis?
  • Add footnotes or source lists?

These are the decisions that often make up a writing style guide. Don’t be afraid to start a style guide for your organization. Even a page or two of guidance can help.

The key is consistency – all content should use the same tone and leverages the same audience-friendly vocabulary. The following graphic summarizes the elements of controlling clarity through word choice.

Follow the One-Thought Rule

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received regarding clear writing is to keep one thought per sentence. I even expanded on that in my first blog post in this series when I advised to keep one thought per paragraph. (And yes, for most online content, a single-sentence paragraph is allowed.)

Those of us who grew up with strict writing teachers learned to write “one complete thought per sentence.” That advice helped us avoid writing sentence fragments – those weirdly unsatisfying clauses or phrases like this one.

But we’re often challenged, I am sad to say, to define what a “complete” thought is. So we go on forever adding words that follow a “which” or a “that” – or a dash – in hopes of stuffing helpful or contextual information into a one-dimensional sentence. No, no, no.

As Bonnie Mills advises in a 2021 column for Grammar Girl, you need to untangle those add-ons. Give them their own space in a separate sentence (but not in a sentence fragment). She emphasizes that each separate sentence should have its own main point. Yes.

But then she gives some advice on sentence length that I don’t agree with. She says keep your sentences to 30-40 words. Nope.

For online articles and posts, keep your sentences to between 15 and 25 words. Remember, as I advised in my first blog post on this topic, your reader is most likely to scan your content for quick take-aways. Help them out.

In addition, make sure that you state your one thought in the most direct way you can. (See below for tips on plain language.) Don’t hem and haw. Make every word count.

That said, you don’t have to be boring. Also vary your sentence length and patterns for more visual appeal and better cadence.

Use Word Order Effectively

After you’ve nailed the length and cadence of your sentences, add one more consideration: word order.

Watch Out for Passive Voice

Writing of any kind for many of us often leaves our heads swirling with rules and cautions. So how about I let you relax at least one of those rules? Specifically, the rule about avoiding passive voice.

The challenge with passive voice in the English language is that it tends to create distance between the meaning in the words and its intended audiences. Sometimes the audience is left out altogether.

Consider the sentence “The positive impact should be applauded.”

That’s not just passive voice, that’s passive aggressive. Most writing checkers would flag that sentence as unacceptable because it contains passive voice. The sentence puts the action “should be applauded” after the object of the action (“positive impact”). English word-order rules demand that the action come before the object.

What’s more the sentence does not contain an “actor” for the action. (Be applauded by whom?) Rules of good English demand that the actor appear in the sentence. Without an actor, this sentence also creepily commands that I (the reader) applaud something. Weird.

That said, most writing checkers would also flag the sentence “In the case of the learning system, the interface design was developed by two teams” as passive voice. That’s because the actor (the “two teams”) for the verb phrase “was developed” appears after the action. English word order rules demand that the actor come before the action.

To recap, English word-order rules demand this order in a sentence:  actor + action + object of action

Yes, but not so fast.

But Consider Emphasis

You also have to consider the word order demanded by the context of the sentence. Sometimes that context demands that you consider emphasis before you consider the rules about proper word order.

Writing for emphasis and brevity while avoiding ambiguity is tricky.

The two most emphatic positions for words in an English sentence are the beginning and the end.

Consider that context for the sentence “In the case of the learning system, the interface design was developed by two teams” might a discussion of collaboration. In that context, the writer is well within their rights to use passive voice. That’s because the context of the sentence (collaboration) demands that the idea of “two teams” appears in a place of emphasis – in this case, at the end of the sentence.

All that said, always avoid backward-leaning sentences that start with “There are, “There is,” and “It is.” Starting a sentence that way will lead you to break not only the passive voice rule but also the emphasis rule.

And note that I am not giving you carte blanche to mess with word order in an English sentence.

Avoid Stacked Modifiers

Watch out, because when you start including modifiers in a sentence, the rules of word order become stricter. (Note that the phrase “In the case of the learning system” in my sample sentence above is a type of modifier.)

Consider the difference between the following two sentences. Which is better?

  1. The cat in the hat with the stripes ate my breakfast.
  2. The cat in the striped hat ate my breakfast.

If you guessed 2, you are more grammatical than you think.

In the first option, the modifying phrase “with the stripes” introduces ambiguity. Does the cat have stripes or does the hat?

English word-order rules demand that the modifier appears as close as possible to the word it modifies. But when we stack modifiers one after another in a sentence, things get fuzzy. The second sentence removes the ambiguity, no matter how fuzzy the cat is.

Writing for emphasis and brevity while avoiding ambiguity is tricky. Whole text books address these topics. But examining the potential effects of your sentences on your intended audiences can help you improve your content’s clarity.

Write in Plain, Positive Language

Providing clear content also demands that we write as plainly as possible. My colleagues who are plain language advocates have written extensively and developed courseware about this topic.

Plain language, as my colleagues define it, is the “use of proven writing and designing strategies that make it easy for your intended audience to find, understand, and use information.” That definition covers a lot, but the Center for Plain Language has only one rule: Be clear.

Techniques for writing plainly include some of the points I’ve already discussed: write shorter sentences, use active voice (not passive voice), include only the details that are needed, and match your audience’s needs and vocabulary.

But the trickier techniques to apply fall into three areas:

  • Avoid overusing jargon. Always strive to use the vocabulary and phrasing that is used by your audience. But don’t overdo it to the point that you choosing jargon over a simpler word or phrase. And above all else, avoid using bureaucratic words or legal terms when they don’t apply. These are sure turn-offs for your audiences.
  • Use transitions between thoughts. Simply connecting one thought to another in a content piece goes a long way to making your meaning clear. One-word transitions like “Also” and “But” are heavy hitters. Repetition of words or style can also help carry the reader through the sections of your content piece. The key is to make the connection obvious so that your audiences don’t have to do the work.
  • Write in the positive, not the negative. Some research in mnemonics has shown that information stated in a positive way is easier to remember that information stated in a negative way. In online content, negative phrases are also easy to miss and misunderstand. This is particularly true if your audience tends to skim and scan the content.

Here are some additional tips to help you use plain language in your online content:

  • Write the way real people talk, especially your intended readers.
  • Use the pronouns “you” and “we” (second person).
  • Replace long, multi-syllable words with their simpler cousins; for example, replace “disseminate” with “distribute” or “hand out.”
  • Avoid wordy phrases like “the seemingly impossible”
  • Avoid stilted, redundant phrases like “prompt, timely fashion”
  • Avoid unintentionally loaded words and phrases such as “even,” “merely,” or “ever-changing.”

A big thank you to Deborah Bosley (Zuula) and Leslie O’Flahavan (E-Write) for a recent discussion of this list of tips.

Check Grammar and Spelling

Content isn’t clear if it contains grammar errors and misspellings. Errors like these can lead your audiences astray, distract them, or, frankly, turn them off completely.

A glaring error suggests you don’t care, don’t have effective processes, and are uneducated or otherwise unprofessional. If you’re really unlucky, your error will end up posted for laughs on social media by a group like Word Nerds

Bottom line, errors undermine the audience’s trust in your content.

Use Helpful Tools

So put your editing tools – your spellcheckers and your grammar-checkers – to work on every piece of content you create. Choose the right tool for your needs and your budget. You can find helpful tool reviews online. An example is the recent Smart Blogger review of grammar-checkers.

My favorite tool happens to be Grammarly, but, then, I am one of those word nerds. For more sophistication, especially for enterprise content, consider a programmable tool, like Acrolinx, that can help enforce your documented style and word choices.

After you have purchased and installed your editing tools, use them! Using them regularly helps you become not only more proficient with the tool but also proficient at catching your own errors and oversights before they get published.

Add Time for Manual Checks

Yes, tools are helpful. But they are based on formulas and algorithms, and your content is meant for human beings. So don’t discount the human aspect of checking your content’s readiness for publication.

As I’ve said before, proofread, proofread, and proofread.

The challenge in proofreading your own content is that your familiarity with it can get in the way of effectively reviewing it for errors. My favorite trick to avoid this trap is to read the piece backwards – from last sentence to first sentence. That way, I can “see” the sentence separately from its context.

I also sometimes read the most challenging sections of a piece out loud. That way, I can check that they are written in plain, naturally flowing language.

Here are some additional tips for self-editing that I’ve learned from my plain language colleagues:

  • After you have completed your first draft, work to eliminate at least 10% of the total word count.
  • “Explode” your paragraphs by putting each sentence on its own line. Are all of the sentences needed?
  • Let your draft rest for 24 hours and then re-read it. This gets you out of the writer’s mindset and into the reader’s mindset.

The following summarizes the elements of constructing clear sentences:

A Word about Hiring an Editor

If you work regularly with a lot of online content, I recommend that you consider hiring or contracting with a professional editor. Many of us in the writing world (yes, me included) find editing work very rewarding.

A professional editor can help bring a consistency and evenness in your published work – beyond what’s attainable even with a programmable checker tool:

  • An editor can enforce that common “voice” across a diverse and evolving set of writers and content.
  • An editor can build the style points that get documented in your style guide and formulated in your tools.
  • An editor can mentor your content writers, helping them to focus on their strengths and conquer their challenges.

Please feel free to contact me to talk more about how professional editing can help your content.

Other blog posts in this series:

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