Writing Clearly


This weekend I attended a major art exhibition at the London Tate Gallery by renowned artist David Hockney. A great exhibition and one of the things I like about art is its ability to produce strong emotions in the viewer. Emotions that can range from complete admiration to disgust and ridicule. Great art does that but great writing should only do that when it sets out to do so. I decided to write this because as I read the exhibition guide I became aware of how little regard is taken at times in written communication to clearly ‘express an opinion’ rather than to try to ‘impress people with your knowledge’. Here’s part of the guide (quoted exactly as it was written):

……..Hockney’s laboriously pointed splash might be seen as a dig at the macho spontaneity associated with abstract expressionism, and the seemingly realistic description of office buildings as a skit on the modernist grid that was coming to the fore in minimalist art.

If anyone can provide a translation to this in less than 21 words I’d be eternally grateful. I use 21 because, in a previous occupation as an advertising copywriter, one of my first manager’s constant sayings was ‘if you can’t rewrite that in half the number of words and keep its essence you can’t do your job properly’.

This is even more important these days as we have to be able to write and respond to written communications instantly because we have the technology to do so. Due to the demands of e-mail we may be forced to respond to 50 emails a day. Consequently we have to ensue that what we write ‘hits the spot’ immediately and achieves the desired result. Below are some tips we’ve picked up over the years that will allow you to write more effectively, more concisely and (above all) have confidence in what you have written.

1. Have a clear objective

Before you type anything into a new message, have explicit answers for two questions:

  1. Why am I writing this?
  2. What exactly do I want the result of this message to be?

If you can’t succinctly answer these questions, you might want to hold off on sending your message until you can.

2. Write a meaningful subject line.

We’ve become a nation of ‘skimmers’; people who merely skim the first line of each email to decide whether to read the rest of the text. Recipients scan the subject line in order to decide whether to open, forward, file, or delete a message. Remember — your message is not the only one in your recipient’s mailbox. You’ll get a faster response if your recipient can tell from the subject line that it’s a real message from a real person that requires real action


3. Make clear what type of email this is

Although the possible topics and content of messages are theoretically endless there are actually just three basic types of business email.

  1. Providing information – “Aaron Patterson will be in the office Monday at 10am.”
  2. Requesting information – “Where did you put the ‘Training expenses’ file?”
  3. Requesting action – “Can you e-mail Total Success to confirm the course next Month?”

It should be clear to your recipient which type of email yours is. Get the details and context packed into that first sentence or two whenever you can.


4. What action is needed?

If your message includes any kind of request; whether for a meeting or a progress update put that request near the top of the message and clearly state when you will need it. Don’t assume that your overwhelmed recipient will take the time to sift through your purple prose for clues about what they’re supposed to be doing for you.



1. Take a look at the first 5 emails in your inbox. Do they comply with the above tips?

2. Take a look at the first 5 e-mails in your sent items. Again, do they comply with the above? If not how would you edit them?

3. If the first two weren’t trying enough, try to make sense of the following well known sayings. We’ve re-written then to test your powers of deduction. Have fun.


Each of the following is a well-known saying. Under each one write the version which would be more recognisable.

1.      All is well that terminates well.

2.      The politics in this organisation give forth an odour which is perceptible and offensive even in the loftiest celestial regions.

3.      If a large solid hoofed mammal becomes available to you without compensation refrain from casting your faculty for seeing into the oral cavity of the creature.

4.      Each mass of vapour collection suspended in the firmament has an interior decoration of metallic hue.