Three rules for producing clean, clear copy

I guess I could probably write “101 tips” on this subject. There’s certainly enough scope, but I think that might be a little overwhelming.

So, instead I’ve been thinking about the top 3 things to do to ensure your copy is clear, understandable and easy to read.

I’m going to assume you already have a clear picture of the audience you are writing for … bonus tip, picture a specific person in your mind’s eye who matches your audience profile.

So, here we go.

Rule 1: Tell one story at a time

I’ve seen people so keen to share their stuff that they get carried way, packing as much as they can about their topic into one piece. Slow down! This enthusiasm is good but there’s plenty of time and opportunity to chunk up your content. You probably have a series of blog posts or articles there.

Be clear on your purpose for writing. If you start off telling one story and then meander on to another track, your reader is like to lose the plot and start to wonder what the point of your piece is. Then they may get confused and just give up and go and read something more straightforward.

Rule 2: Use the process of explanation

Once you are clear on the purpose of your story, you can then tell it to someone else in a clear and logical way.

Think about what happens when someone stops and asks you for directions to somewhere. Before you start telling them, you first stop and think and work out the route in your mind. Then you explain it to them – in a step by step way.

If they are a stranger to your area, you will naturally add in detail that you would feel unnecessary for someone more local.

So it is with writing. Be factual, be helpful. Work out what is key to your reader’s understanding. Leave out the padding. And leave your ego at the door.

Rule 3: Banish the “not”

Why? Well, in the first place, our brains deal very badly with sentences written in the negative – those containing “not” or the abbreviated “n’t”. We actually struggle to understand their true meaning. We get confused and slow down.

Bob Nicoll in his excellent book “Remember The Ice” talks about “(K)notty Words” and you can read more about the science behind the “not” at

Next time you have to stop and think when you read something or have to work out the true meaning when someone is speaking, check for “(K)nots”.

In this (real) example, there’s two.

There’s not a single man who believes we can’t win.

(England rugby player before a final 6 Nations game, talking about the team).

I expect he means “We all believe we can win.”

So, we can see that avoiding a negative phrasing and writing in the positive simplifies the sentence and also gives more energy and power.

It also makes things clearer. Supposing someone says “I’m not happy about that.” Well, what do they mean? That they feel sad? Or maybe that they feel angry, fed up, disappointed – there are various interpretations. Our language is rich and nuanced, let’s make the most of it!

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