How to Improve the Readability of Your Written Message

By Barbara McNichol
No matter what you’re writing—a sensitive email, a report, a proposal, even chapters in a book—you aim to make it easy for readers to understand. But how can you ensure what you actually write is what you intended?
Ignore this question at your peril—no matter how busy you are or how fast you want to advance your projects. When you rush to action, you risk having to redo, revise, and explain. That doesn’t save you time!
To improve the readability of your message as you write, turn the following five tips into strong habits:

  1. Write short words and limit the total number in a sentence. No more than 21 words per sentence is a good rule of thumb.
  2. Include one major point per paragraph and one major concept per chapter. Don’t try to do too much in either one.
  3. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly so the strongest, most salient ones can stand out in a crowd.
  4. Break up large blocks of type with subheads—enough that readers can skim the subheads to quickly find what they’re looking for.
  5. Don’t change the point of view within a paragraph (e.g., switching from a “we” to “you” orientation). If you have to shift the pronoun reference, start a new paragraph.

Most important, always proofread your own message at least three times and, if possible, have two colleagues check it, too. As you reread it, ask: “Is this exactly what I intended?” If not, rework it until you’re satisfied your message can be easily understood by others.
The benefit to you? You will save time in the long run.
Barbara McNichol provided several writing insights in a recent ODI webinar. Click here to hear more from this expert editor of nonfiction books.
In collaboration with ODI, Barbara offers a fun, educational subscription program called Word Trippers Tips. To keep your language skills sharp, become a subscriber and you’ll receive Word Tripper of the Week and an ebook with 390+ Word Trippers, plus quarterly writing tips, a 38-minute webinar, even a crossword puzzle. Check out the details at


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