Why do you write? Is it to tell a story? To impart valuable information? To entertain? To raise a smile or even a laugh? All of the above?
Whatever it is, unless you write it with clarity, it’s going to fall short of your expectations. After all, if your readers don’t know what you’re getting at, why should they bother reading?
I’ve been writing fiction and non-fiction professionally for more than three decades, but that doesn’t mean I’ve always been able to say precisely what I mean. Some of my early writing — and the occasional first draft even now, if I’m honest — are so opaque you couldn’t see through them with an X-ray machine.
The problem is that writers just love language. Why use one word when we can treat the dictionary like a candy store and pick ten? Or fifty. Technically, this is known as pleonasm, which sounds like something unpleasant your doctor might prescribe ointment for, but it’s a real word. Look it up. And an equally-unlikely adjective is sesquipedalian — a predilection for unnecessarily polysyllabic words.
And now I need a lie down.
Why we need clarity
The problem is, of course, that few of your readers are writers. They’re less interested in your deathless prose than in the information it encodes. It’s not how you say it — it’s what you have to say. If you’re telling a story, they want to know how it turns out for the people involved. If you’re telling a joke, they want the punchline and a laugh. If you’ve written an instructional manual for a nuclear reactor, they want to know where the off switch is, in case things go a bit China syndrome.
In non-sesquipedalian terms, they want clarity.
And really, it’s not that hard to do. Don’t worry too much about it when you’re writing a first draft, because the important thing there is getting the ideas out of your head and onto the page. The best time to clarify your writing is afterward, when you come back to that messy first draft. Not only can you make your words clearer, but you might find — as I do — that you’ll start to clarify your thoughts too. And with clearer thinking comes clearer language and clearer information.
So, let’s look at how to cut back the undergrowth and reveal the path hidden within. Most of this is aimed at non-fiction writing, but you can apply the same principles to fiction; just remember that in fiction, you may not always want to cut your prose to the bone. But you do want clarity.
Keep it short
We’ve already mentioned long words and even longer sentences. These are the biggest hurdles to clarity in writing. Sometimes, it’s easy to fall into the trap of writing to impress, particularly if you’re striving for authority or gravitas. But readers don’t care about that. They’ll recognize your authority if what you tell them is useful. And if it’s gravitas you’re after, just avoid stupid jokes about X-ray machines and polysyllabic sentences.
Use short words when you can. And short sentences. If you find a sentence with more than 15 words in it, get your editing shears out and give it a trim. And ignore the fact that my last sentence contains 22 words. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there are no rules in writing. Just guidelines, which frequently work more often than not.
Use reader-appropriate language
Closely related to the ‘keep it short’ mantra is to use language appropriate for your intended audience. This might seem obvious, but it’s not always easy to keep it in mind during the white heat of writing — or even during the dim glow of my own writing sessions. Clearly, a children’s story will use very different language to a grisly splatterpunk novel for hardcore horror aficionados, but there can be more subtle differences, particularly in technical, non-fiction subjects. When experts write on their specialist subject, it can be difficult for them to remember that not everyone else is an expert too.
For example, I’ve written a lot in the medical sector, working with doctors, surgeons, and other expert clinicians. And while technical studies and papers for peer-reviewed journals are one thing, communicating with patients and other non-clinical folk is quite another. Take this excerpt:
Adenoid cystic carcinoma is the most common malignant epithelial tumor, and the second most common epithelial tumor, of the lacrimal glands. It accounts for approximately 1.6% of all orbital tumors and 3.8% of all primary orbital tumors.
I know. This is how it was worded by an eye surgeon for use in a patient information leaflet. If you know what it means, send me your answer on a postcard.
This is how we eventually reworked it:
Adenoid cystic carcinoma is also known as ACC. It is a rare form of a cancer that grows in the body’s glands. Sometimes it can cause tumors in the glands of the eye that produce tears. Around 4% of all cancers affecting the eye socket are of this type.
See the difference? The second version uses much shorter sentences, simpler syntax, and everyday language. It’s clearer and, for a patient, less intimidating.
This is medical jargon, but the principle is the same in any specialist field. If you’re writing a description of a software product for an investor, show them what the product does, not how much you know about coding. If you’re writing a user guide for that software, make sure the reader can follow your instructions or your phone lines are going to be jammed with calls from confused, soon-to-be-ex customers.
Write for your audience. Use appropriate language. Don’t show off.
Engage with your reader
There are many ways of engaging with the reader directly, but one of the simplest and most effective is simply to use pronouns that suggest inclusivity.
The second-person pronoun “you” literally speaks directly to the reader; it’s as if you were sitting at a table with them in your favorite coffee shop, having a conversation. It makes them feel like you’re talking specifically to them. And so you should be.
Similarly, first-person plural pronouns like “we”, “ours”, or “us” can create a sense of community. It gives the feeling that we’re all in this together; a kind of, “I feel your pain and here’s what we can do about it” vibe. It’s another way of bridging that gap and connecting directly with your reader.
It doesn’t matter what you’re writing. Use inclusive language like this and the reader will feel the connection. What you’re saying will, as if by magic, become clearer.
Use active language
One of the main stumbling blocks I see, especially in writing intended for professional or specialist audiences, is a reliance on passive verbs and sentence structure. Many newer writers think this kind of structure gives their writing a serious, authoritative tone. Unfortunately, what it usually does is make it sound stuffy, formal, and unclear.
At the most basic level, sentences can be thought of as containing three elements: a subject, a verb, and an object. Take this simple example:
The reader [subject]engaged [verb] with the essay [object].
“Engaged” is an active verb in this sense, and the sentence is clear enough. The subject (“the reader”) is the focus, and we are presented with them before the object, so who’s doing what (and to what) is clearly established.
However, if we move this around and shift the focus, we can make the sentence passive by turning the subject into the object, and vice versa:
The essay was engaged with by the reader.
It means the same thing, but the focus has changed and you can feel the difference in tone and engagement. In a real-world example, you might find something like this in, say, a financial report:
The implementation of COVID-19 restrictions has adversely affected profit margins.
In this sentence, the subject is actually “profit margins” and the object is “COVID-19 restrictions” but they’ve been swapped around, in an effort to sound more authoritative, or more formal. Or something. Whatever the reason, it’s made the sentence clunky and unclear, because it’s passive.
If we put the object and subject where they belong, we get a more active sentence and things suddenly become a lot clearer:
Profit margins have been adversely affected by COVID-19 restrictions.
We can even make it a little more active by removing the adjective (“adversely”) and using a punchier verb than “affected”:
Profit margins have been impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.
And while we’re here, the first, passive example, contains what’s known as nominalization. This is a particularly heinousabstraction of a noun, which is guaranteed to make your writing as opaque as a badger slathered in creosote.In essence, a nominalization is a noun formed from a verb (i.e., “implementation” is a noun formed from the verb “to implement”).
Don’t use these horrible beasties. They’re not big, they’re not clever, they will not impress your readers, and they won’t make you more attractive to prospective romantic partners. They will cause eye rolls, head shaking, and quite possibly, assassination attempts.
Don’t be afraid of lists
A quick Google search will show you ten trillion articles describing why you shouldn’t use numbered or bulleted lists — some of them formatted as numbered or bulleted lists.
Treat these articles with the contempt they deserve and ignore them. There’s no reason not to use lists to clarify complicated ideas, and in some cases they may even be preferable. If you have a list of items, each of which is quite lengthy, a bulleted list is much easier to assimilate.
The only proviso to using lists is maybe not to use numbered lists if you can avoid them. If we’re looking for clarity, the less information the reader needs to absorb the better, and a number at the start of each item is just one more piece of info. Use bullets where you can, because the eye simply skims over them without the need to process them.
Naturally, we could spend a lot longer discussing this subject, and no doubt we will at some point down the line. But for now, if you put these techniques into practice, your meaning — and often your personality, which readers love — will spring to the fore. Your prose will be as clear as a glacial spring in northern Norway. Though hopefully not as cold.
In the end, writing and reading are all about communication. And the clearer that becomes, the better it will be for us all