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Writing understandably: looking for the right mix

It sounds pretty obvious: good texts are easy to read and understand. But to be able to achieve this as a writer is no mean feat! If you know lots about the topic of your story, it can be difficult to make choices and use an appropriate style. Marjet Tamse, senior trainer at In’to, knows just how difficult it can be to switch to a way of writing that is clear to everyone.

Marjet: “You use technical terms and abbreviations without realising it, or you don’t make connections explicit because they’re obvious to you. You have to constantly put yourself in your readers’ shoes: what information are they looking for? What is the most important thing for them to know, and what information can you leave out? How do you dose the information? Do you write in short or long sentences, do you use formal or informal language, do you opt for active or more passive sentence structures?”

The term B1

Increasing numbers of organisations feel that it is important to focus on ‘the average reader’ when writing texts. You often see the term ‘B1 level’ in connection with this trend. Marjet thinks the term is not quite appropriate: ‘B1 is one of the language levels for Dutch-as-a-second-language learners. The Dutch language reference levels are used for native speakers. For example, 4F is the target level at 6 VWO. But writing understandably is not necessarily about writing at a certain language level. It’s about a wide range of readers being able to quickly read and understand a text.” This is also why we prefer to speak of ‘writing understandably for a general audience’ rather than ‘writing at B1 level’ at In’to Languages.

From reading culture to viewing culture

Why is writing understandably so important? “We continue to move from a reading culture to a viewing culture,” says Marjet. “Research shows that young people are reading 40% less than five years ago. You can also see that each new generation reads less than the previous one. It means people have less reading experience, so you have to adapt texts accordingly.” Increasing numbers of organisations have started doing so: insurance companies, banks, the government. All pay attention to plain language. “And rightly so. You want your readers to know what is going on and what to do immediately. It also saves a lot of effort in answering questions and complaints!”

The right ratio

So how do you make sure texts are easy to understand? Writing understandably is a mix of all kinds of elements. It is not just about using easy words or short sentences: the structure of your text is also important. The same is true of the title and headings, as well as the use of images. Finding the right tone is also important: how do you address your readers? Marjet: “Writing an understandable text is like following a recipe: take a base of this, mix it with a pinch of that and, above all, don’t forget the seasoning. A good text consists of several ingredients that create a clear story when combined in the right proportion.”

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Want to learn to write understandably?

Do you want to learn about the different ingredients needed to create the perfect mix, so that your texts will be easy to read and understand from now on? You can do so with our Writing understandably for a general audience training coursewhich we offer as a group course and a tailor-made course.

Written by
drs. M.D. Tamse (Marjet)
M.D. Tamse (Marjet)
Marjet is senior teacher and coach effective writing, inclusive language and Dutch as a second language (NT2).