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Crystal or mud?

Do you struggle to communicate your ideas? Is your writing as clear as crystal, or more akin to mud? If you've ever wondered whether people understand what you write – or are interested in it – then read on. In this post, I share the basics about how to get your audiences engaged.

Getting started

Before you put pen to paper, it's really important to get your ducks in order. In my mind, there are four main steps in this preparatory phase:

  • Know your objectives: First, think about why you're writing. Are you telling people about your latest world-changing research? Are you writing to persuade a funder to support your project? Or are you writing to encourage people to help you with your project, as partners or co-creators? Be clear about what you're hoping to achieve.

  • Identify your audience: Next, think about who you're writing for. Your audience will be linked to your objectives. So, if you're writing to tell people about your research, your audience is likely to be pretty broad, ranging from policy makers, to practitioners, to members of the public. If you're seeking financial support, it will be a narrower audience of reviewers and funders.

  • Test your assumptions: Third, think about why your audience is reading your writing and ask yourself what levels of knowledge you're assuming. Members of the public might have less specific knowledge than an expert in your field, but what about industry experts or decision makers? Different audiences can have different levels of expertise, come from different backgrounds, and have different interests and objectives.

  • Get your story straight: Last but not least is to step back from the detail and think more broadly about the story you're trying to tell. And it should be a story. What are the key points you want to make, and what is the most interesting way to make them? Plot out your story, capturing cast, location and events.

These four steps might seem like common sense, but you'd be surprised how many times they get glossed over, or forgotten altogether. Being clear from the start about why you're writing, who you're writing for, why they're reading, and what you need to tell a good story will help you make good decisions along the way. Time taken to think, plan and plot will not be wasted.

Decision time!

After the preparations comes the time to make decisions. For me, there are two main areas to consider:

1: Structure

Before launching into your best seller, take a moment to think about three areas of your structure. First, there's the beginning, which you should use to engage your audience and entice them to read on. If you're writing about your research, use the beginning to set out the question or issue your research is addressing and why it's important. In the middle, you can expand the ideas you're trying to communicate. Use this section to provide a more detailed context and to describe the what, how, who, when and where of your story. Lastly, there's the end, where you can reiterate the purpose or importance of your story and bring it to a close, potentially describing the impact of your research or pointing to what happens next. Sketch out the beginning, middle and end before you start writing and use it as a guide throughout.

2: Language

Now we get into the juicy stuff! I'm a word-nerd, so the choice of language is always the bit I enjoy the most and probably spend the most time on. Again, I tend to think about four main things as I sit down to write:

  • Complexity: Lots of ideas, particulary new research, can be really hard to communicate to other people, no matter what their background. So take the time to use simple, everyday terms to explain those ideas. Do your best to avoid technical language, jargon and acronyms; if you can't avoid them, be sure to explain them. Most of all, don't waffle! Using lots of words or writing long reports doesn't necessarily mean people will understand your ideas any better and can even be counterproductive. Be as concise and precise as you can.

  • Clarity: It's your job as a writer to make it as easy as possible for your readers to understand your writing, so do whatever you can to help them. Describing the context is a great start and will go a long way to situate your work. Another useful approach is to provide concrete examples using everyday analogies, so your readers can create their own pictures.

  • Personlisation: There's a specific academic style of writing that is deliberately impersonal, but when you're writing for non-experts, you need to make them feel part of your story. So write to your audience, use the first person and focus on involving people, rather than excluding them.

  • Interest: Finally – and most of all – make whatever you write interesting. Whether it's content for a website, a social media thread, a media article or a funding application, you'll be completing with a myriad other stories to grab the attention of a reader. So mix it up! Use an active voice, not a passive one. Be positive, not negative. Use varying sentence lengths – not all short, and not all long. And don't be afraid to be bold and get creative, even using a graphic rather than yet another bullet point or paragraph to explain your ideas.


The final stage of my writing process is to look back at what I've written, and make sure I've thought about all the important bits. And to demonstrate how words and pictures can interact, I've summed up the steps in this phase in an image:

It's not just Lisa Simpson who thinks writing can be really hard, but there's no need to suffer in silence! Using these basic steps will help your writing edge closer to the 'clear as crystal' end of the scale. And if you need more detailed advice or training, just get in touch. We'd be delighted to chat through training and support options.


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