Confusing your readers

Whether you’re writing a blog article, an email or a report, it’s important to:

1. know your audience and choose your words accordingly;
2. know your reason for writing – for example, whether you want to inform, persuade, entertain or cause your reader to do something after reading your text;
3. make it as easy as possible for your reader to understand you.

If you are not clear and you confuse your readers, they may miss important points, or they might not take the action that you want them to take.

If people can’t understand your text, they may just disengage and not want to read it. If they have to read it, they may end up missing a key point or not doing what you want them to – so it always pays to be clear.

Here are some points to consider so that you don’t confuse your readers.

1. Structure the text

Some people like to write out bullet points or headings first, whilst others want to get everything out of their head and then sort out the structure afterwards. Whichever way you do it, make sure that when you’re finished, the text follows a logical structure and doesn’t jump about from subject to subject with no clear line of thought. This will make it easier for your reader to understand your point, follow your story or see how a series of events in a process fit together.

2. Be consistent

A document that I recently proofread kept changing from “you” to “customers” to “they”, although the writer was talking about the same group of people all the way through. I think the problem came about because parts of the document had been cut and pasted from other sources. The end result was that it kept distracting me and taking my attention away from the important information.

For example, if I am writing a piece about one of my English courses, I have to decide whether I’m going to address potential buyers as “you”, or whether I’m going to explain what course attendees will learn. Doing both is just untidy and it will confuse people.

3. Acronyms and abbreviations

We use these all the time, particularly when we’re writing for an audience that is familiar with the topic. However, it’s still good practice to write them out the first time that you use them. I think that everyone knows what the RSPCA stands for, but maybe one of my readers who isn’t from the UK will not have heard of it. You may think that everyone in your office knows what a certain acronym or abbreviation means, but what about the new person who joined the team last week?

4. Avoid the trap of the long sentences

Some people seem to think that the longer the sentences, the better the writing will be. Whilst it’s true that longer sentences can allow you to give further information, provide more detailed explanations and sound more interesting, you can have too much of a good thing. If the sentences become too long, they are often more difficult to read. If your sentence is snaking its way over several lines, try to read it aloud and see whether it really does make sense, or whether it would benefit from being chopped into several smaller sentences.

5. Don’t assume that everybody knows what you’re talking about

Although you don’t want to clutter your text with unnecessary background information, if this information is necessary for someone to understand what you’re saying, let people know where they can find out more. This is why it’s important to know your audience. If you are writing for a more general audience, try not to exclude people by making assumptions about what they already know.

6. Make it easy for people to identify what you want them to do

Sometimes people aren’t being unhelpful – they just didn’t realise that you wanted something from them. If you’re making a request or you have a call to action in your text, find a way to make it stand out so that people don’t have to hunt for it.

7. Be consistent with dates

There are a number of ways to write dates. I’m not going to say that one is better than the others, but it makes it easier to read your text if you choose one format and stick with it. Otherwise your text can look untidy and inconsistent.

8. Make sure that all the words add value

It’s good to have your own writing style and I personally don’t like it when texts have been edited so much that they’ve been stripped down to the bare bones. However, people are more likely to read to the end if you keep it to the point and avoid rambling, going off on a tangent or saying in five sentences what could have been said in one.

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Kirsty working with students

Author: Kirsty Wolf

I am an English teacher and a language enthusiast who also speaks German and Romanian. I help motivated professionals to improve their English so that they can communicate confidently and authentically.

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