Updated on October 5, 2015
How to write clearly
Write clearly to keep your audience reading
Photograph by Nick Diamantidis
Every time you write, you’re trying to communicate a message. So it stands to reason that the most important aspect of your writing is clarity – getting that message across without any danger of confusion or misinterpretation. If you don’t write clearly it’s also likely that your readers will switch off mentally or click away altogether. So here are seven tips to help clear the mists from your copy.
1. Plan the structure of your piece before you begin writing. What is the main theme of your piece? What is your ultimate message? Make sure you have this absolutely clear in your own mind before you start. Then decide how you are going to work towards that message – are you going to state it straightaway and then back it up with evidence? Or posit a question, look at the arguments for and against and then reach your conclusion? Will you work chronologically or will you use “climax order” – putting the least important points first and working up to the most significant? Whatever you decide, make sure that each paragraph flows logically to the next and that every single one is relevant to your theme. It can also help to have a “topic sentence” in each paragraph – one that encapsulates the paragraph with other sentences revolving around it.
2. Don’t use a long or unusual word when a shorter more common one will do. There’s no need to write fuliginous when you mean sooty, or that she adumbrated the proposal when you mean she outlined it. However pleasing they often sound, “big words” can interrupt your reader’s train of thought and obscure your meaning. The general rule of thumb here is: if you wouldn’t say it, then don’t write it.
On the other hand, a word such as estivation, meaning “prolonged torpor or dormancy of an animal during a hot or dry period”, is specific and no other word will do. If you’re writing about a specialist subject then you obviously have to use the specialist language that goes with it. Equally, unusual words with precise meanings can be very useful for explaining complex ideas succinctly – so don’t be afraid to use them, even if they’re not often heard in everyday conversation. I like analogous (comparable in some respects), specious (superficially plausible but actually wrong), contiguous (sharing a common border) and conflate (combine two or more ideas or issues into one).
3. Consider your commas. It goes without saying that you need to use the correct punctuation in order to write clearly. But where some punctuation marks follows strict rules (see this post on apostrophes), others, such as commas, are there to guide the reader’s understanding and their usage is open to debate. There are some instances where commas are clearly needed (in lists for instance) but at other times the position is less obvious. The important thing to remember is that commas should never slow the reader down. Excessive use of commas can get in the way of the flow of a piece – but leaving them out could make your meaning unclear. So while I often favour the less is more approach, commas can be very helpful. Take this sentence: “He sent letters to his two daughters, David Cameron and Mary Berry.” Now, despite what you might have been told about not putting a comma before and, you really do need one here. Readers should never have to read a sentence more than once to make sense of it – so if a comma helps then leave it in.
4. Watch out for commonly confused words. Be careful of words that sound similar but have different meanings – remember that spellcheck won’t pick these up! Classic examples are:
affect (a verb meaning “to have an impact on”) and effect (a verb meaning “to bring about” or a noun meaning “a change as the result of an action or other cause”)
allusion (“an indirect reference”) and illusion (“a mistaken belief; a deceptive appearance”)
aural (“of the ear”) and oral (“relating to the mouth”)
beside (“next to”) and besides (“in addition to”)
disinterested (“impartial”) and uninterested (“bored by; not attracted to”)
imply (“to suggest or hint”) and infer (“to deduce from the evidence, facts or discussion”)
lay (“to put down” – a transitive verb, ie, one that is followed by an object as in “lay your coat down here”) and lie (“to be at rest on a horizontal surface”); just to confuse you, the past tense of lie is lay, the past tense of lay is laid, the past participle form of lie is lain and the past participle form of lay is laid…
There are a load more of these – probably enough for a post of their own, so watch this space.
5. Avoid flowery language. You’re trying to communicate a message or explain an idea – not impress your audience with your creative writing skills. Stick to short sentences, simple language and a straightforward structure and save long-winded metaphors and florid descriptions for your next novel.
6. Don’t get personal. Unless you are writing an opinion piece, or an article about yourself or your interests, keep a calm, measured tone of voice and don’t use personal anecdotes unless they truly add meaning. To sound authoritative and credible you need to stay detached and reasonable – ranting, gushing or adding snarky asides will not help to get your message across.
7. Be a ruthless editor. If at all possible, finish writing your piece a couple of days before your final deadline. That way, you can come back to it with fresh eyes and give it a thorough edit. You’ll probably sense immediately where the structure has gone awry or where certain paragraphs get a bit waffly. Don’t be afraid to ditch the parts that aren’t working – it’s painful to cut your own work but it almost always improves it. But be sure to keep a copy of the original – just in case.