“Do not write so that you can be understood, write so that you cannot be misunderstood.”
If you look around online, you’ll find some version of this quote attributed to Robert Lewis Stevenson, William Howard Taft, Epictetus, and probably others. A scholar I trust attributes it to Quintilian (AD. 35-100). It’s not entirely clear. As Abraham Lincoln apparently said in 1864, “The problem with internet quotes is that you can’t always depend on their accuracy.”
But there’s a reason people repeat the sentiment, and it’s relevant to the question of writing for business. “Not misunderstandable” is a good description of the text that every client wants their writer to produce.
I personally don’t think it’s possible to avoid misunderstandings completely in writing, at least for writing that conveys opinions rather than pure facts. In this very blog post, I’ve left myself open to misinterpretation, because someone, somewhere, will read this and think I’m honestly claiming that Abraham Lincoln gave an opinion about quotes on the Internet. [spoiler alert: he didn’t]
So that’s rule #1 of clarity – No jokes.
Business writing, for the most part, isn’t the right place for jokes. The best-case scenario is that someone thinks you’re funny. I personally can’t think of any business figures who are revered for their sense of humor. Can you? The most likely scenario is that someone thinks you’re not a serious person. And if you’re joking, they’re right. The worst-case scenario is you offend someone. There’s a huge potential downside and very little potential upside.
Rule #2 – Omit needless words.
I stole this rule from William Strunk Jr.’s classic “The Elements of Style”. If you’re interested in writing and haven’t read this book yet, please go do so now. The revised edition is credited to Strunk and E.B. White. Brevity and clarity aren’t identical, but they overlap significantly.
Rule #3 – Understand what you’re trying to say.
This may seem like I’m violating rule #1, but I’m not. Very often professional writers are asked to write things they don’t understand, are asked by people who themselves don’t understand the topic, or both. There’s no shortcut for understanding, but two good practices can help improve clarity: limit the scope of the piece (rather than trying to cover every aspect of the given topic) and understand the point of the piece (what you want the reader to take away after reading it).
Rule #4 – Ask yourself “is there another way to read this?”
This is a variation on the tried-and-true method of reading your text back to yourself aloud. If you’re working on an important text, you really need to query every sentence and ask yourself if there’s another interpretation than the one you intended. It’s even better if you can have someone else read it, because as writers we tend to read our own words with our own intentions firmly in mind.
Even if you follow these rules, you should also accept that people will sometimes fail to understand what you’ve written. Sometimes, as a writer, it’ll be your fault. Sometimes it will be the fault of your audience–either missing the point or failing to pay sufficient attention. “Not misunderstandable” is a wonderful ideal, but like most ideals, it’s useful mostly as a motivator for our efforts, not a standard that can be achieved.