Clarity by Design

In my last article, I discussed what I believe are the seven qualities of good web writing. First on the list was clarity.

Clarity, I said, lies in the eye of the beholder. It’s the reader, not the writer, who determines whether the writing is clear.

Soon after the article went live, I received an email from Rob Young, a copywriter in Australia.

“It’s not just the web,” he wrote. “If you are focused on your readers, then I believe you adapt the way you write to communicate clearly to them, regardless of the medium.”

Of course Rob is correct — all writing, regardless of the medium, demands clarity.

But what I believe makes clarity even more important online is that readers tend to have a lower tolerance for ambiguity online than offline.


Because usually they’re in a bigger hurry, they’re task driven, and they’re reading from a computer screen — which, compared to reading from paper, is about 25 percent slower and considerably less pleasant.

Making Life Easier for Readers

“You write to make life easier for your readers,” Rob continued. “Ambiguity makes life harder. It causes hesitation, doubt, and frustration. It slows down the read.”

Exactly. And making life easier for readers is what the web is all about.

Why Ambiguity Is So Bad

Ambiguity, from the Latin ambigere, which means “to wander,” doesn’t just mean “having two or more meanings.” It also means “doubtfulness or uncertainty as regards interpretation” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition).

The problem with ambiguity is that at the very least it interferes with communication because it makes readers stop and think — the No. 1 thing web sites should never do, according to Steve Krug, author of “Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability.”

Ambiguity forces readers to determine the meaning based on insufficient evidence. And when they don’t get it right, they “wander.”

Why Clarity Is So Important

Clarity is more than an absence of ambiguity. Writing clearly is a little like testifying under oath. You have to tell the truth (write unambiguously and accurately), the whole truth (include enough information), and nothing but the truth (include no unnecessary words).

It’s a tall order. “Easy reading,” Nathaniel Hawthorne once said, “is damn hard writing.” Ambiguity has a way of creeping into the most unlikely places.

It crept into one of my earlier sentences (did you notice?): “Writing clearly is a little like testifying under oath.” The sentence has two possible meanings:

  1. It’s clear that writing is a little like testifying under oath.
  2. Clear writing is a little like testifying under oath.

Though it’s probably clear from the context that I intended the second meaning, readers should never be forced to rely on context. Not only is it more work for them, but it often results in miscommunication — especially online, where readers are more likely to scan and might miss the context altogether.

Avoiding “Humpty Dumpty” Writing

Always have at least one other person proof your writing. Always. And print out the pages — it’s much easier to catch errors on paper than on screen.

But it’s not enough to have proofreaders or editors look at it because chances are if they don’t represent your audience, they won’t catch all the ambiguity.

Here is an example: The company I work for designs and builds web sites. On our home page I used the words “our expertise” to refer to the services the company provides. I thought it was perfectly clear. So did the folks who signed off on it, as well as another writer and a proofreader.

But what we discovered when we tested it was that it wasn’t clear at all. Did “our expertise” mean that we knew a lot about those services, users asked, or did it mean we actually performed them? So we changed “our expertise” to “what we do.”

By assuming that “our expertise” would be understood as I intended, I was guilty of what I call “Humpty Dumpty” writing. “When I use a word,” says Humpty Dumpty, “it means exactly what I mean it to mean, no more and no less.”

Discovering the ambiguity was what Steve Krug calls a “head-slapper” — ambiguity that’s so obvious when pointed out to you that you slap your head and say, “How did I miss that?” Head-slappers often result from Humpty Dumpty writing.

Next time: error messages, words, and constructions that tend to cause ambiguity, and tips for writing more clearly.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.