Delivery room (2nd floor of intermediate building) - in 1898-1899 Annual Report. Moved here from first floor in 1898-1899. Photo courtesy Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

In 1960, Kelly Johnson was the lead engineer at a division of Lockheed that made spy plans.

One day, he handed a team of design engineers a handful of tools. Then he told the engineers that they must design a jet aircraft that would be repairable by the average mechanic in the field under combat conditions using only those tools.

At that moment, the popular design phrase “Keep it Simple, Stupid” or KISS was born. It describes the idea that most systems will work better if they are designed simply.

I first heard this phrase in journalism school. Reporters, marketers, ad agents, and public relations employees are all taught the power of simplified language in copy.

Simplified copy is easy to read and understand. It sounds authentic. Conversational copy subconsciously signals to your audience that you are a person, and people like communicating with other people.

Librarians are intelligent and sophisticated people. They have a deep understanding and appreciation of complex concepts. They’re driven by accuracy and information. It’s challenging to write clearly when you’re an expert in your field!

But our cardholders may have a difficult time understanding library brochures, posters, blogs, and websites with convoluted and confusing language. They may be tune out if the wording of your promotions isn’t conversational.

Your job as a library marketer is to translate complex thoughts and concepts into a concise and clear language your audience can understand and appreciate. You must present information in a way that the cardholder can understand.

It’s easier said than done, but here is some guidance you can put into practice any time you’re asked to write a piece of library marketing.

Identify your target audience and the action you want them to take.  

Before you even write the first draft of any promotion, pinpoint your audience as precisely as possible.

Are you writing for teens ages 13-15? Are you writing for women, ages 25-54, who love to read cozy mysteries? Are you aiming your message at parents of preschoolers who need help finding books to read to their children?

When you’ve settled on your target audience, write a sentence about them at the top of the page. Be as descriptive as possible.

Underneath that, write a sentence that describes the point of your marketing material. Are you trying to persuade someone to try a new service? Do you want to increase participation in a preschool storytime? Are you trying to get teens to enter an art contest?

Once you know precisely who your audience is and what you want them to do after they’re read your marketing material, you’ll have an easier job of writing clearly.

Define unfamiliar or difficult words, titles, or services. 

Go through the draft of your material and highlight words or terms that may confuse your audience. Then, find a better way to say or explain those words.

Never take it for granted that your reader has been a lifelong user or follower of the library. Words used by librarians to describe services, programs, catalogs, and databases, which may seem common and every day to you and your staff, may not be so to your reader.

Shorten your sentences and paragraphs. 

You may have noticed that, about 18 months ago, I started writing shorter sentences and paragraphs here on the blog. Views rose by 118 percent!

That’s because shorter sentences and paragraphs make it easier for your reader to understand and absorb what you are saying. Long paragraphs look thick and off-putting. Multiple studies show readers will skip lengthy paragraphs. And the Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack Study shows people are more likely to read an entire webpage when the paragraphs are short.

There are two rules you can remember to help you get into the habit of shortening sentences and paragraphs.

  • Ziomek’s 1-2-3-4-5 rule: Created by Jon Ziomek, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism. The rule says each paragraph must contain: 1 idea, expressed in 2 to 3 short sentences, taking 4 to 5 lines.
  • Nityesh Agarwal‘s 80-20 rule: You can convey 80 percent of the information in any piece of writing using 20 percent of the words.

Get into the habit of hitting your return key more often. You can also break your writing up using bullet points or lists.

Use online writing tools.

There are lots of free tools that can help you craft sentences that are clear and concise, even when the subject matter is not! They can help you figure out a headline that will draw readers in. They can help you discover just the right word to make your meaning clear.

Here’s a list of my favorite online writing tools. The Grammarly extension for Windows is also extremely helpful.

Ask a non-library employee to read your work.

I often ask my family members to read my writing. If they find anything to be confusing or convoluted, I know I need to change it.

Bonus Tip: Read or listen to the book Everybody Writes by Ann Handley. It’s life-changing. Check your library collection first. If you have Overdrive, you’ll have the audiobook version. You MUST read this. It will make you a better writer.

Do you have tips for writing more clearly or examples where you have taken a complex library concept and simplified it for an audience? Share your experience or questions in the comments.  

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