Write Clearly at the Detail Level

Now that you’ve got a clear big picture, it is time to fill in the details. Even small details can make or break the clarity of your message. Consider the following tips for ensuring your sentence composition and word choice add to the overall clarity of your message.

Compose Clear Sentences

Each sentence in a business message should contribute to your overall message and help you reach your goals. There are many rules and strategies for composing clear sentences. Here are some of the most helpful for business.

Write Short Sentences

The shorter a sentence is, the easier it is to understand. Of course there will be times that you will need to write long sentences. But if you can find ways to rewrite one long sentence into two or three short and clear sentences, your message will be much clearer.

Use Active Voice

Active voice is also clearer than passive voice. This means that you make clear who or what is performing the action and what action was performed.

Passive Voice: The package was delivered by Bill.”

Active Voice: Bill delivered the package.

Active voice is not a hard and fast rule, however. Passive voice can be effective in communicating an action when you don’t know (or don’t want to emphasize) who performed the action (for example, “The package was delivered” keeps the focus on the package).

Use Proper Grammar and Punctuation

Paying attention to the smallest details of your message will also help the overall clarity. Following grammar and punctuation rules may seem nitpicky and unnecessary. However, those rules provide clarity because they help establish shared meaning. Failure to follow grammar and punctuation rules can lead to confusion, misunderstandings, or incorrect actions.

Consider the Ohio woman who got out of paying a parking ticket for parking her pickup truck overnight in a no-parking zone. She successfully argued that she shouldn’t be fined because the sign said there was no parking for “any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle,” and her truck was not a “motor vehicle camper.”1 The missing comma between motor vehicle and camper cost the police department the price of a ticket. In your business messages, missing or incorrect punctuation or unclear grammar can cost you time and money if your receivers misunderstand your message.

Use Parallel Structure

Parallel structure also can add to clarity. Parallelism can provide your receiver with cues to understanding how the different points in your message relate to each other. For instance, you might start three consecutive paragraphs by writing the first sentence of each one in a similar way: “Product X is reliable”; “Product X is versatile”; and “Product X is stylish.”

Make Direct Requests

When you want your receiver to take a specific action, make that request both clear and direct. So instead of writing “Would you please send the parking pass back at your earliest convenience?” you could write “Please return your expired parking pass by February 1.” Many times the best direct requests use the imperative mood, which cuts out the noun and gets straight to the action you want the receiver to take.


Communication Tip: Signal Content with a Descriptive Subject Line

The subject line has been described as the “most valuable piece of inbox real estate.”[1] Email subject lines serve two vitally important processes. First, they help receivers prioritize how to work through their inboxes. Given the average U.S. businessperson receives dozens of legitimate emails per day, chances are, they are scanning their subject lines to determine which messages need immediate attention and which can wait. Second, subject lines help receivers retrieve important messages at a later date.

Therefore, it is important to know how to write a descriptive subject line. Here are a few tips:

Use the subject line
You may find it surprising, but some people do not use subject lines. Not only is this a waste of valuable inbox real estate, but a blank subject line also increases the likelihood of your message going to Junk Mail.

Keep it short
The subject line is not the place to write your entire message. Include only enough words (~4-8) that your receiver can anticipate what is in the message.

Signal whether action is necessary
Some messages you send will be informational and others will be requests for action. If you can signal which is which, your receiver will be able to respond more quickly. For instance, saying “Approval Needed – Revised Project Budget” signals a requested action. In contrast, “Revised Project Budget” could be interpreted to be an informational update.

Include critical information
If you need to share a critical piece of simple information, help your receiver by putting that in the subject line. For instance, instead of “Marketing Meeting update,” you might say “Marketing Meeting moved to Room 201.”

Use key words that are meaningful to your receiver
Think about how your receiver would look for your message in the future and make sure to include those phrases. For instance, instead of “Project Update,” your receiver might find it more useful to have “Bluestone Bakery & Café Project Update.”

Spell correctly
If you have a typo in your subject line, your message may be lost forever. For instance, if you spell “Bluestone” as “Bluestnoe” and that message gets filed away, the automatic search function will never find the message.

Choose Clear Words

When you are writing clear messages, word choice matters. As a business communicator, your job is to make sure that each word you choose means what you want it to mean and that your receiver will understand it correctly. Therefore, the most important aspect of clear wording is choosing your words with your receiver in mind. Here are several ways to avoid potential pitfalls of unclear wording.

Define Terms

If you use a term that your receiver may not know, include a definition, example, or other kind of explanation. Without a definition, you are putting a burden on your receiver to look it up or risking that your receiver will not understand your message.

Explain Acronyms

If you use an acronym, on its first appearance in your message spell out the full name and put the acronym in parentheses immediately following it. For instance, “The Marketing Task Force (MTF) has been assigned…” At that point you can use the acronym exclusively.

Avoid Jargon

Try to avoid jargon. Of course, some jargon will be impossible to avoid, especially in internal business communication. But the more you can use terms that all your receivers will understand, the clearer your message will be.

Use Simple Words

Shorter and more familiar words tend to be clearer than longer or more unusual words. Consider this example: “Pertaining to our discussion of yesterday, it would be advantageous to allocate additional resources until we reach the optimum parameters.” While all of those words are English, the meaning of the sentence as a whole can be lost in the length and complexity of the words.

Use Precise Words

Choose words that are as precise as needed to get your point across. Sometimes a very basic term will work, such as when you point someone to the “red” rental car. Other times, much more precision is necessary. There is a big difference between saying, “We have not reimbursed employees for tuition” and “We do not reimburse employees for tuition.” That one small word can dramatically change the meaning of the message and could generate much confusion.

Clarify Ambiguity

Ambiguity occurs when a string of words could reasonably mean different things. For instance, scheduling a meeting at 6 o’clock could mean 6 a.m. or 6 p.m. Or it could mean 6 in New York, 6 in Santa Clara, or 6 in Tokyo. Other times, an ambiguous term can lead to even more disastrous results.

Fix Vague Referents

A vague referent occurs when you substituted a noun with a pronoun, but it is not clear what noun your pronoun is supposed to represent. Some of the words to look out for are He, She, They, It, This, That, These, Those. When you have a sentence with any of those words, take a closer look. If it isn’t completely clear what the referent is referring to, fix it by putting the noun back in.

  1. Even though we cannot track down the original person who said this, many professional communication bloggers and marketing consultants faithfully repeat this adage.


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Business Communication: Five Core Competencies Copyright © 2023 by Kristen Lucas, Jacob D. Rawlins, and Jenna Haugen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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