7 tips for writing clearly

pen and notebookWriters’ handbooks—written by more knowledgeable folks than I—abound. But certain principles for clear writing are just plain universal, and I’d like to share a few with you.

Write simply.

Many readers can’t read difficult writing. Others just won’t bother. Unless your writing must contain specialized vocabulary for your field, know that brief, clear writing is what will draw and hold your reader. You’ve hooked him when he can read your words with interest and joy!

Start off with a working title.

Brief titles and subtitles help you organize your material and stay on track as you subdivide it into more manageable pieces. Your title should do its job by giving the reader a clue about what’s coming.

Use short sentences.

It’s fun to incorporate colorful, interesting words. And we definitely want to encourage this in our kids so they can grow and mature their writing vocabulary! But sometimes the best of us can get carried away with 30- or 40-word sentences! A sentence should be long enough to do its job yet short enough to be dynamic and purposeful.

Choose shorter words.

Of course, there will always be exceptions, but as a rule, long words are often more formal—even dull. On the other hand, short words tend to have force and directness. And as language gets more direct, clarity improves. It’s interesting to note that short, familiar words—typically words with fewer syllables—are more easily understood than their longer counterparts. For example:

    usefulness – value
    procedure – method
    unadorned – plain
    persnickety – fussy
    subsequent to – after

Use active instead of passive verbs.

Active verbs help us deliver our ideas more forcefully. For example:

    Passive: The beauty of our landscape is considered spoiled because the roads are lined with trash.
    Active: We hate the trash that lines the roads and spoils the beauty of our landscape.

Use transition words.

They direct and guide the reader so he can follow your ideas. Words like besides, in addition to, and furthermore tell him you have more to say about the subject or more examples to present. Terms such as however, on the other hand, and conversely tell him you’re going to make a U-turn and offer some opposing points of view. First, second, next, last, and finally offer points in sequence, keeping both writer and reader focused.


Editing helps make your message clear to the reader. We all try to improve grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word choice. But don’t forget to look for ways to make even the most complex ideas clear and simple to grasp.

Copyright © 2008 Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

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Parents: If you’re looking for ways to teach your teens to write effectively, take a look at WriteShop. The principles of concrete, concise, organized writing will help your students gain confidence and skill!

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