Good writers need to have a wide vocabulary. Perhaps you remember your teachers at school encouraging you to use more interesting language in your writing.
Repeating the same words can be very boring and a bit irritating.
There was a nice house with a nice garden and a nice view over the hills.
Add some more exciting alternatives and you’ve got a much better sentence.
There was a beautiful house with a lovely garden and a magnificent view over the hills.
But there are times when showing off your vocabulary can make your writing confusing.
Consider this example:
Thanks for applying for a Wafflington Royal Theatre Membership Card. We will send your customer card to you by post, along with a welcome letter that includes your seven digit ID code.
When you log into your online account you will need to enter the identification number to buy tickets. To buy tickets at the box office, please bring your proof of membership with you and quote your ref. number.
In these instructions, it sounds as though there are two different cards: a ‘Membership Card’ and ‘customer card’, as well as separate ‘proof of membership’. These are all, in fact, the same thing. The writer has used three different descriptions for the same card.
Similarly there seems to be a ‘seven digit ID code’, an ‘identification number’ and a ‘ref. number’. Again, these are three different names for the same thing.
By trying to avoid repeating herself, the writer has made these instructions more confusing. There’s nothing wrong with using a variety of words to add life and colour to your writing. The problem comes when you are using several different names for the same thing.
Let’s try it again, repeating the key words.
Thanks for applying for a Wafflington Royal Theatre Membership Card. We will send your Membership Card to you by post, along with a welcome letter that includes your seven digit ID number.
When you log into your online account you will need to enter your ID number to buy tickets. To buy tickets at the box office, please bring your Membership Card with you and quote your ID number.
We’ve ended up with a much clearer set of instructions. In this case, the repetition isn’t boring or annoying. It makes sense.
Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself if it makes your writing clearer. We’ll be tackling another example with this tip on Thursday, so stay tuned for the next workshop.
Here’s an example of some instructions that could do with a rewrite:
The writer has softened the message and made it sound as though these directions are merely suggestions that the reader can ignore. In reality, these are actually important instructions about their safety and how to use the product.
Let’s try it again with more direct language:
The result is a clear and authoritative set of instructions. They are still polite, but also reassuringly direct and firm.
If you’ve got any tips for writing instructions, we’d love to hear them. Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
When you’re writing instructions, don’t be afraid of being bossy. The most effective instructions often use direct language and imperative verbs (verbs which give a command).
Do not smoke in the building.
Wash your hands after feeding the animals.
These instructions are clear and helpful. The language is direct, the tone is authoritative and the message is easy to follow.
You might be worried about sounding demanding or rude if you used commands like these in your writing. Perhaps you’d be more likely to write something like this:
Please try to avoid smoking in the building.
We recommend that you wash your hands after feeding the animals.
The tone here is certainly softer, but the message just isn’t as powerful.
Here’s why you should use the imperative:
1.) You’re the boss
If you (or your organisation) are giving instructions, take charge with your words. Your reader needs to hear what you’ve got to say and follow the directions you give them. They won’t be surprised when you tell them what to do (or what not to do).
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can never say ‘please’. Use it sparingly though. You don’t want to sound as though you’re pleading with your reader.
For example, these instructions could do with being much more direct:
Please try to be considerate of other passengers on the bus wherever possible. We ask that you avoid putting your bags on the seats. If you could take all litter home with you, this would be greatly appreciated. We would like to advise you that the blue seats by the door are reserved for disabled people and the elderly.
In an effort to be polite, the writer has made these instructions very long-winded and rather feeble. They don’t sound like authoritative commands, just the vain wishes of a rather desperate bus driver.
Let’s see if we can make some improvements:
Please be considerate of other passengers on the bus. Do not put your bags on the seats. Take all litter home with you. The blue seats by the door are reserved for disabled people and the elderly.
2.) Direct instructions are safer instructions
Using direct commands usually makes your writing clearer. If you are giving your reader directions for their safety or wellbeing, don’t make them sound like mere suggestions. You don’t want your reader to treat them as optional.
If there is a fire, we recommend that you leave the building as soon as possible. You are advised to use the nearest fire exit. Please avoid taking any belongings with you.
Here, the writer sounds as though they’re afraid of sounding too bossy. In reality, the reader needs to be told with authority that they MUST leave the building in the event of a fire. In an attempt to sound polite, the writer has diluted the meaning and implied that leaving the building is only a ‘recommendation’. In this case, a more direct command is a safer choice:
If there is a fire, leave the building immediately. Use the nearest fire exit. Do not take anything with you.
Follow these simple tips and you’ll be giving instructions like a boss in no time.
To put the ‘Cut the jargon’ tool into practice, let’s try it on this letter:
There’s a lot of jargon and lots of unnecessarily long words in this letter. The information is all there, but you have to work hard to make sense of it.
The writer of this letter probably works in the GP surgery, so they may not realise this . If you use specialist words all the time in your job, it’s easy to forget that not everyone knows what they mean.
But words like these can be a barrier between the reader and the information they need. If the reader has to read your writing several times or get out a dictionary to understand it, that’s not a good sign.
Let’s try cutting the jargon…
By swapping in some shorter words, we’ve made this letter much easier to read. Where we couldn’t replace a word, we’ve made sure it’s clearly explained in the letter.
The good news is, this an easy problem to fix. You’re the expert on this topic, so you’re the best person to help your reader understand it.
Have you got any jargon-busting tactics? Share your tips in the comments below.