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clear communication: overview of the writing process and techniques

(A similar topic is discussed in French in the article COMMUNICATION CLAIRE : SURVOL DU PROCESSUS ET DES TECHNIQUES.)

This overview provides an introduction to the techniques that will help you create clear, effective and reader-focused texts. For more information and examples, see other documents labelled “clear communication.”

This overview looks at the following points:

Step 1: Analyze

The starting point of any writing project should be to identify the intended readers, the purpose of the material and the desired impact. Before you start writing, ask yourself the following questions.

Audience

Who are the intended readers? Are you writing for specialists, young people, all taxpayers, or a group whose first language is not English?

What do the readers need to know? Do they need the details or just an overview; the historical context and the reasons behind the decision, or merely an explanation of the decision’s impact on them? What needs to be emphasized?

How will the readers use the information? Will they use it to make a decision, to determine whether they are eligible for something, to carry out a procedure? Will they need to read the entire document or concentrate on one or two sections?

Tailor your message to the audience: your document will be easy to read if it matches the readers’ ability, interest, motivation and background knowledge. You may have different types of users: write so they all understand.

Purpose

  • Think of your own objective: Are you trying to inform your readers, convince them or raise their awareness of a particular issue? Are you explaining a concept to them or asking them to do something?
  • What do you want to happen as a result of this document?
  • Also consider the readers’ objectives: Why are they reading your document? What are they trying to do or learn?

Type of document

  • Are you writing a memo, a letter, a pamphlet or a report? The type of document influences your decisions and how you will need to organize your ideas.

Step 2: Plan

  • Start by getting all your ideas on paper. Then you can pick and choose which ones you want to include in your text. Try to be brief: it’s best to cover only the most important and relevant points.
  • Once you’ve decided what to include, separate the essentials from the secondary information and then figure out how to bring it all together in an organized way.

Step 3: Write

To save the reader time and effort and ensure that your message will be clearly understood, choose straightforward vocabulary and sentence structures, and organize and present your material clearly.

Organization and Structure

  • Decide on a structure. Is a brief summary of background information required? What are to be the main divisions of your document? How much detail is required? Is a question-and-answer approach appropriate?
  • Divide your text into main points and secondary points.
  • Put the most important ideas first—both in the document and in each paragraph.
  • At the outset, tell your reader what your document is about and how it is organized.
  • Guide readers through the document: use a table of contents for long documents; use markers, such as meaningful titles, headings and subheadings, to map out your document.
  • Use point form, lists or question-and-answer format whenever possible.

Content

  • Clearly state the purpose, context and logic of the information.
  • Get to the point: give only the essential, relevant, complete and accurate parts of the message; aim for quality information, not quantity.
  • Give the big picture: start a document of 4 or more pages with a summary.

Style and language

  • Use short, familiar words: explain technical terms that cannot be simplified; use concrete and explicit words with common meanings, and avoid abstract nouns; create image-evoking information for the reader.
  • Express your message in a friendly and positive tone: talk to your readers in a conversational style.
  • Use action verbs instead of nouns, and use adverbs and adjectives sparingly (modifiers and qualifiers do not necessarily make meaning clearer).
  • Personalize your message and write directly to readers by using I, you and we.
  • Write in the active voice so that readers know who does what, when.
  • Be concise: write sentences averaging 15-20 words to a maximum of 30 words (it is better to have only one subordinate or conditional clause per sentence). Keep paragraphs short, with only one main topic.
  • Divide information into manageable chunks: break complex parts into simple steps, and list instructions or actions step by step. Give examples to explain complex concepts. Emphasize what you want readers to do—repeat your message.
  • Describe mathematical operations clearly: set up numbers in rows and columns instead of paragraphs. Display numbers clearly and explain operations using explicit math symbols or familiar terms (add, subtract, etc.).

Layout, design and format

  • Choose the best format and medium for your message on the basis of readers’ needs.
  • Make your document scannable: visually appealing and easy to read. Use readable typefaces and sizes (at least 12-point or 14-point for seniors or people with visual impairments). Leave plenty of white space (at least 50% of the total page area).
  • Emphasize important information by strategically using boldface, boxes, illustrations, images, tables, graphics and colours (have a high contrast between the colour of your text and its background).
  • Be careful with italics, underlining and shading.
  • Don’t type words entirely in capitals.

Step 4: Reread, edit, revise, evaluate

The first draft serves as a starting point. You then need to rewrite, edit and polish the text, always keeping in mind who will read it, and why.

  • Edit and proofread several times, focusing each time on a different aspect of the text. Make sure that you’re providing readers with all the information they need, that the structure is clear, that sentences and words will make sense to readers, that the layout helps make the text easy to read.
  • Delete any unnecessary ideas or words.
  • Rewrite complex sentences; check for administrative jargon and technical language; watch for acronyms.
  • Have someone else read your text.
  • A trial run with a potential reader or colleague who has knowledge of the target readership could be a useful test. Surveys, focus groups or field tests would provide an even more thorough indication as to whether your document will get the message across simply and clearly to the intended readers.

Step 5: Always improve your communications

  • Set up a procedure to handle client feedback so you can continue to improve your communications.