Key to clearer writing: Know what you want to say

Key to clearer writing: Know what you want to say

If you want to write clearly, you must know what you want to say. This may seem obvious but it’s surprising how many writers forget this point.

As the writer, you must know what you’re trying to say.

Unless you know what your message is, there’s very little chance that the reader will know.

(Updated 15 March 2024 to add “Write alt text”)

That means you have to think about your point before you even start writing.

Different writers have different processes to discover what they want to say. Some people may plot an outline first; others may prefer to write freely to help them process their thoughts and arrive at their point (but at some point, you do need to use a logical eye).

You also need to organize those thoughts in a logical way at some point.

It doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you know exactly what you’re trying to express.

Beware: Your topic is not your point

By the way, your point or message is not the same as your topic. Your topic is generally what you’re writing about. For example:

Your topic: "gender gaps in employment among people aged 45-54 in Japan" 
Your point: "The employment gender gap among highly educated people aged 45-54 in Japan discourages women from attending university."

The topic doesn’t take a stand—but your point does.

How can I tell that I know what I want to say?

You can easily practice making sure you know what you’re trying to say. Here are some ideas:

⯈ Write a tweet

One exercise is to write a tweet summarizing the main point of your paper/article.1

You could break it down into two steps:

  1. State your main point.
  2. Answer the question: “so what?” (Why should we care about your point?)

The character limit for Twitter/X is 280, but if you’re up for the challenge, aim for even less (imagine you need some space to add a URL, tag someone, and add some hashtags).

A side note: There’s a 2019 study that looked at what happened when Twitter increased its character limit: “How character limit affects language usage in tweets.”

⯈ Write alt text

Alt (alternative) text is “a textual substitute” for images and other non-text content on websites and digital documents. In a few words, it needs to convey the meaningful content in the image (figure, chart, etc.) so that people using assistive devices like a screen reader or those with weak internet connections can understand the content in the image.

Get into the habit of writing alt text and you will get better at identifying the key message and choosing your words to get that message across effectively. And it ensures that your content is accessible—a win for all!

Explore resources to learn more about alt text.

⯈ Write a “deck”

A deck is a summary that comes under the headlines of articles and tells readers what the article is going to say.

The general recommendation for decks seems to be to keep it very brief, 15-20 words.

Again, focus on the key message.

⯈ Write each paragraph as one sentence

You can also try summarizing every paragraph in your document.

This doesn’t just give you practice identifying your point. If you try this after you write your draft, it will help you review the flow/logic of your work.

⯈ Write subheadings for your article

Like summarizing each paragraph, you can also write subheadings for sections of your work.

Make sure you don’t just write the topics (see the warning above!). Make each subheading a declarative statement (if you can. I know you can’t always do this).

If you write the subheadings before writing the content, it can serve as a form of outlining what you want to write.

Or if you do it after you’ve drafted your article, you can check if the paragraphs in each section actually make up a coherent point.

Forcing yourself to strict word/character limits is great practice in stating your most important message in simple language.

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Cover image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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  1. I’ve moved away from using Twitter/X, but will keep the language of referring to short social media posts as “tweets.” Please substitute with “toot” or “skeet” or any other name as you like. (15 March 2024)

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  1. Pingback: Key to clearer writing: Know the big picture before you start | The Clarity Editor

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