7 Writing Tips To Simplify Your Message

MR YEO SEE MENG, who leads the customer experience team at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), shares tips on how to get your message across clearly.
7 Tips To Simplify Your Message

As public officers, we write many letters to a variety of readers every day. Have you ever reread your drafts and wished to simplify your writing? Here are seven tips to help you craft a clearer letter.

Aim for one page only

Most readers have no time for page two. So start off by aiming for your letter to fit into one page (without shrinking the font size). Use this rule to focus on your message. What does the reader need to know if there is only space for a few points? Notice the focus should be on what the reader needs to know, less on what you want to say. If you have too much content to cover, create an information sheet, guide or brochure, and attach it with your letter.

Think of the readers first

We often frame our message from our organisation’s point of view. We will have more success if we tell it from the reader’s viewpoint. Give the facts, but don’t let your reader conclude with a “So what?” Make sure your message addresses these three points:

  • What does your reader need to know?
  • Why does he need to care?
  • What does he need to do?

Adopt a conversational tone

Writing in a friendly tone helps to strike up a relationship with the reader, so write as if you are speaking to them. To make your writing more personable, use “you” and “we”. Use contractions (e.g., “we’ll” instead of “we will”), if your organisation is comfortable with it.

Create a meaningful headline

When we read newspapers, headlines grab our attention and help us decide if we want to spend time reading it. We often underestimate the use of the subject title in a letter or email. Instead of subject titles such as “Application Outcome”, use “Your application is successful” to give it more meaning. In the MOM’s letters, headlines are in a larger font size and give the gist of the letter in less than 10 words.

Be cautious, however, when communicating bad news. Say what you need the reader to do first instead. You may find it easier to write your headline last. Write the body first and then craft the headline to sum up your letter.

Short, simple and active

Writing needs practice and conscientious reviewing. Always review your draft for:

  • Length: Short sentences are easier to understand. Break up long sentences and keep them below 20 words.
  • Simplicity: Replace complex words with simpler ones. A thesaurus can always give you simpler alternatives. Also look out for jargon, gobbledygook and Latin words.
  • Active voice: When we use the active voice to construct sentences, we make it clearer who needs to act, e.g., “You must submit the form by November 16.” However, if you are delivering bad news, the active voice may sound too harsh. In such cases, consider a more passive tone, e.g., “The form must be submitted by November 16.”

Use free readability tools

The Hemingway editor highlights in different colours long sentences, complex words and sentences in passive voice. While you can choose not to change anything, the editor helps you to quickly zoom in on areas to improve.

Test and share your writing

The only way to know if your writing is clear enough is to test it with someone else. If you are short on time, grab a colleague who is unfamiliar with your topic. If you have more time, grab someone from your target audience. Citizens today are happy to give feedback to government agencies. Give different versions of your drafts and hear what they say. Look out for questions like, “What does this mean?” Don’t be surprised if readers interpret your message differently. Keep an open mind, understand why and make the changes.

All of us can become better writers with practice. When you share your writing and make improvements from feedback, it will become better.

Happy simplifying!

Mr Yeo See Meng is Senior Assistant Director, MOM Work Pass Division, and a PS21 ExCEL Innovation Champion. He led the Division’s editorial team to simplify more than 1,000 pieces of letters, emails and content for the MOM Digital Services website.

Civil Service College courses on writing well are available:

    Jan 5, 2016
    Yeo See Meng
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