Writers’ handbooks—written by more knowledgeable folks than I—abound. But certain principles for writing clearly are just plain universal, and I’d like to share a few with you.
1. Write simply.
Many readers can’t read difficult writing. Others just won’t bother. Unless your writing must contain specialized vocabulary for your topic or subject matter, brief, clear writing will draw and hold your readers. You’ve hooked them when they can read your words with interest and joy!
2. Start off with a working title.
Brief titles and subtitles can help organize your material, keep you on track, and make a big writing project feel more manageable. Titles and headings do their job by giving the reader a clue about what’s coming. Start with a working (temporary) title and section headings. You can refine or replace them later.
3. Choose shorter words.
Writers sometimes use long words when they want to sound educated or knowledgeable. Unfortunately, overusing long or formal words can make writing sound stuffy. Did you know you can cut out some of those long words and still make your point? That’s because short words tend to be more forceful or direct. And as language gets more direct, clarity improves.
Short, familiar words—typically words with fewer syllables—are easier to understand (and are sometimes more appropriate) than their longer counterparts. For example:
- use instead of utilize
- value instead of usefulness
- method instead of procedure
- plain instead of unadorned
- after instead of subsequent to
This doesn’t mean you should never use long words; they definitely have their place. Just make sure to wisely choose words that make your point or help your writing sound more grown up. Remember: when you write in your own voice, whether using long words or short, your message will sound natural and sincere.
4. Include short sentences.
Not only can choosing just the right word pack a punch, it can develop and mature your writing vocabulary. But sometimes, even the best of us get carried away and use too many words. Suddenly, those extra words have morphed into 30- or 40-word sentences!
Try these tips to avoid the wordy-sentence trap:
- Punctuate your papers with a few five- to seven-word sentences.
- Replace a string of adjectives with one powerful noun
- Split extra-long sentences into two or three shorter ones.
- Watch for run-on sentences and comma splices.
A sentence should be long enough to do its job, yet short enough to be dynamic and purposeful.
5. Use active instead of passive voice.
Active voice helps us deliver our ideas more forcefully. Limit use of to be verbs (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been) and opt for strong verbs when possible.
The beauty of the landscape is considered spoiled because the roads are lined with trash and debris.
Trash and debris line the roads, spoiling the beauty of the landscape.
6. Use transition words.
Transition words direct and guide readers so they can follow your ideas.
- Words like besides, in addition to, and furthermore tell your readers you have more to say about the subject or more examples to present.
- Terms such as however, on the other hand, and conversely warn them that 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 and revising help 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 write more concisely, making even the most complex ideas clear and simple to grasp.
Take these seven tips for writing clearly to heart. They’re simple and doable, and the results will give you a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction.
If you’re looking for ways to teach your teens to write effectively, take a look at WriteShop I and II. The principles of writing clearly—concreteness, conciseness, and organization—will help your students gain confidence and skill!