Maybe you’ve heard about the benefits of starting a personal or company blog but are battling some insecurities about it. Maybe you’ve been blogging for a long time and are wondering how to get better results. Or maybe you just genuinely want to make your writing more readable.
All are admirable goals! And whatever your reason, we’re here to help. In this post, you’ll learn eight sentence-level tips you can start implementing to write more clearly.
A Note on Adaptability
Before we get into things, I want to briefly talk about adaptability. Adaptability is one of the most important skills a writer can develop, and here’s why.
Different audiences you’re trying to reach have different expectations. And those expectations (whether the reader is conscious of them or not) inform how an audience receives your content. By knowing the best way to connect with a specific audience, you’ll be far more successful in achieving your communication goals. That’s why it’s critical to develop strong writing skills in different forms and styles.
Now, as a techie, you’re used to particular writing styles. You were probably trained to write in a style that’s suited for reports, technical documentation, etc. And I’m guessing that style is pretty professional.
A professional (or academic) writing style—which is the way most of us are trained to write in school—has its strengths. But it’s not the most effective style for all forms of communication. Just imagine reading your favorite novel if it was written the same way as documentation is!
A professional writing style might make your writing feel more authoritative. But if you’re writing for a blog, it’s not what your readers expect or want to see. Which means that it’s a less effective form of communication for your intended audience.
Instead of expecting your writing style to convey your blog’s authority, trust your content to be authoritative. Authoritative content combined with a more casual, conversational writing style is a recipe for blogging success.
This conversational style is at the heart of what we consider “readable writing.” So how do we achieve that?
The key to writing more readable, conversational text is to keep things simple. Here are three tips to get you started.
1. Don’t Spell Out “Do Not”
One of the simplest things you can do to improve your readability is to use contractions. In case your memory of grammar terms is hazy, a contraction is a word that shortens two or more other words. For example, the contraction for “do not” is “don’t.”
We’re told to never use contractions when we’re trained to write for professional or academic contexts. Contractions don’t exist in formal writing. And that’s because we perceive formal writing as markedly different from our casual communication styles.
In contrast, we hardly ever don’t use contractions when we speak—unless we’re trying to make a rhetorical point.
And since we’re trying to achieve a conversational style when we write for a blog, you should use a contraction at every possible opportunity. Did you say “it is”? Use “it’s” instead. Would not, could not, should not? Wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t—and so on.
By using contractions when you write, you make your writing feel more natural to a reader. And that, in turn, makes the text easier for a reader to quickly understand.
2. Sentences Should Be Short and to the Point
As a writer, I have a tendency toward using long sentences. It’s part of my writing style and voice. And I spent years developing that voice, so I’m not about to just give it up.
But as an editor, I know that long sentences are more difficult to read. So in the interest of continuous growth, I’m constantly reviewing and revising my writing to make my sentences more direct.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a long sentence now and then. What’s important is that you ensure your long sentences have a sense of logic and organization for the reader.
But if you’re struggling with readability problems, your sentence structure is one of the first places you should look.
If you write consistently long sentences, look for a logical place to break them into two sentences. Also, be sure to vary your sentence structure! Toss in a super short sentence now and again (just make sure you’re not unintentionally writing sentence fragments). Doing so helps keep your reader interested and engaged.
3. Use “I” and “You” to Build Rapport
Imagine if the words “I” and “you” didn’t exist in your vocabulary. How would that change the way you speak to friends and colleagues? I’ll tell you one thing—it would make communicating way more difficult.
Yet we were all taught to avoid using “I” and “you” when writing. In other words, don’t recognize your agency as the author of a text, and don’t acknowledge the existence of a reader.
As a blogger, you should do the exact opposite.
By actively incorporating “I” and “you” into your writing, you automatically get into a more comfortable mindset. The distance between yourself and your reader is reduced. Suddenly, writing doesn’t feel so much like a stiff task. It starts to feel like you’re talking to a friend.
In fact, many bloggers tout the benefits of envisioning your ideal reader before you write and then writing with them directly in mind! So, who’s the “you” in your posts? Write to that person!
So now that we’ve covered some easy ways to write more simply, let’s get a bit deeper into the grammatical weeds. The next step to increasing your writing’s readability is to use more active tenses.
4. The Difficult-to-Read Sentence Was Written in Passive Voice
I’m sure you’ve heard of the passive voice at least once in your life as a writer. But even though we’ve all heard of it, passive voice is notoriously difficult to define and understand.
Yoast, a popular readability plugin for WordPress, gets to the heart of what’s wrong with the passive voice: “In sentences with passive voice, it remains unclear who or what is acting.”
One of the reasons why passive voice is rampant in formal writing (as I discussed in the previous section) is that we’re discouraged from using “I” and “you.”
To avoid referencing ourselves or our readers, we construct our sentences in intricate, alternative ways that remove any sense of agency. But by failing to acknowledge agency, we wind up making our sentences incredibly difficult to read.
You see, a complete sentence has two parts: a doer of an action (subject) and action (verb).
Here’s an example sentence.
The software developer writes code.
This sentence has active language. The subject (software developer) performs an action (writes). As a bonus, we have an object, or thing that’s receiving an action (code).
In a sentence with passive construction, you’ll often see the object (“code,” in our example) appear first:
The code is written by the software developer.
And in some passive sentences, the subject—the person or thing doing our action of “writing code”—doesn’t even appear:
The code is written.
Now, passive voice isn’t completely evil, and sometimes it’s the best choice for communication. But by making an effort to write active sentences as often as possible, you’ll increase your readability.
5. -ing Words Are Slowing Your Reader Down
Quick take: what if the header above said “-ing Words Slow Your Reader Down”? That header is a much more expedient read, and it has more impact.
Words that end in -ing are associated with a couple of different grammar rules. But I don’t want to bore you with the nitty-gritty details. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Now sometimes, -ing words are exactly the right choice. Obviously, if testing is one of your favorite things to do, it’s difficult to get rid of that -ing word. (But it’s not impossible! You might say “I like to test software”—but that doesn’t say the same thing as “Testing is my favorite thing in the world.”)
But in some contexts, -ing words lead to wordiness, which weighs down the text and makes it harder on the reader.
Here’s an example:
As a developer, you‘re getting paid for coding.
In the above sentence, the bolded words are the types of -ing words you want to watch out for. Now, let’s see what happens to the reader’s experience when we get rid of the -ing:
As a developer, you‘re paid to code.
See how much easier that is to read? It’s such a small change, yet it makes a huge difference for the reader.
So if you catch yourself using an -ing word when you write, stop. Take a step back. Look at how the -ing word is functioning in the sentence. Note which words are around it, and how they’re working together with the -ing word. In some cases, you’ll be able to replace the -ing word with something less wordy, like we did in the example above!
Use caution when exercising this rule, but cut down on -ing words to increase your readability.
Write With Your Reader in Mind
Now that we’ve discussed some small steps you can take to make your writing more readable, I want to go over some big-picture tips. Even though these next three points require you to think about your writing project as a whole, you still have to implement them at the sentence level to be successful. And when you do, your reader will thank you for it.
6. Show Your Reader the Way With Signposts
We all fall into the trap of assuming that because something we’ve written is logical to us, it will make sense to a reader. But even if you’ve organized your post perfectly, your reader still needs some help.
As the author, you have to provide that help in the form of transition words and phrases. Yoast only marks you green for transitions if 30 percent of your sentences have them.
But there’s an important distinction to make between the kinds of transitions Yoast requires (which intend to help the reader make connections between individual sentences) and the transitions that will help a reader navigate through your writing as a whole.
I call these big-picture transitions “signposts.” Signposts are full-sentence or multi-sentence transitions that help your reader follow big shifts in your post’s organization or logic.
So How Do Signposts Actually Work?
Take a look at the signposts I used earlier in this post:
At the end of the section “A Note on Adaptability,” I asked, “How do we achieve a conversational writing style?” Then, I started the next section with the answer to that question: “to keep things simple.”
By asking and answering this question between sections, I helped the reader transition their focus from what I had been talking about (adaptability) to the new topic (simplifying your writing).
And to start off the next section, I gave the reader yet another signpost: “One way to simplify your writing is to use contractions.” The phrase “one way” triggers a thought process for readers. They know to expect a list of ways to simplify writing, of which this is the first. They know where you’re going.
Now, this may seem like transition overkill now that I’m spelling it all out here. But I’ll bet it didn’t feel like overkill when you read it the first time around.
You should use signposts at the beginning and end of your main ideas to help guide the reader through your post. Doing so helps your reader see the connection between sections, and it keeps them from getting lost along the way.
The way you organize your writing may seem perfectly logical to you, but it often isn’t to your reader. Which brings us to the next tip.
7. Think Like Your Reader
Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
As an editor, I see this issue a lot—and not just among tech writers. Authors from all walks of life struggle with fully communicating their ideas on the page.
But unlike good ol’ Albie says, this doesn’t necessarily indicate that the author doesn’t understand the topic. Rather, it indicates that an author is so entrenched in their own knowledge of the topic that they fail to see what information they have that the reader doesn’t.
Let’s say you’re writing a “what is it” post. Your purpose in writing the post is to help readers understand a topic they have little or no prior knowledge on. (We can assume the reader’s limited knowledge because of the nature of their query “what is it?”)
Now, you’re writing this post because you feel you have the background knowledge and authority to answer the question well.
But the problem for many authors is lack of awareness about the discrepancy between their knowledge and the reader’s. As a result, when they write their “what is it” post, they leave critical gaps in their explanation.
The author’s brain automatically fills in those gaps, so the post makes perfect sense to them. But a reader who doesn’t have the same background knowledge as the author is left confused—unable to see the connection between two concepts, frantically googling terms that the author doesn’t define, etc.
Even if your post is readable from a technical standpoint, these gaps make your writing less readable for your audience.
So when you’re writing, ask yourself, “Is it reasonable to expect my reader to know this?” And if the answer isn’t a resounding “YES!,” take steps to address that.
8. Ask the Questions Your Reader Would Ask
On a related note, try to get into your reader’s psyche when you’re writing. In addition to asking, generally, “Will my reader know X?,” anticipate your reader’s followup questions!
So you’ve discussed X and Y and how they relate to one another. What will your reader ask when they reach the end of that explanation?
Is your reader now wondering how exactly X works? Or are they curious about how X and Y working together fits into the bigger picture of your topic?
If you can anticipate these questions, then you can leave no stone unturned! Your post will comprehensively address your reader’s every need.
Pro tip: You can write these questions directly into the post! Not only do they create a conversational tone, but they also serve as transitional signposts!
Why does readability matter? Well, Google factors in a lot of variables when ranking your post, including how users respond to your content. Problems with your content could cause, for example, a high bounce rate, resulting in a lower ranking in Google searches. That’s not to mention the fact that, as human beings, we all appreciate good writing.
Now, you’re probably wondering how to implement these tips. After all, you’ve been writing in a specific way for a long time, and change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes consistent and persistent effort.
Luckily, there are online tools that can give you feedback on your writing.
The tips I discussed are intended to increase your writing’s readability beyond the standards of these tools’ algorithms. But some of these tools can still provide helpful insights when you’re self-editing. If you’re wondering where to start, I recommend checking out this one.
Like I said, you won’t be able to transform your writing overnight. You know what they say: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” But write frequently and keep these tips in mind when you write, and you’ll start to see results.
What are your strategies for more readable writing? Let us know in the comments!