How to write clearly
Part 1: Sentences
I am not naturally a good writer. I’m not naturally a good communicator. My mind jumps from one thought to another in a way that frequently only makes sense to me. I know this because I often sense confusion in the people I speak with. I sense my audience’s confusion when I read a written response to something I sent.
I know I’m not alone. Most people struggle to communicate well. Speaking has real-time feedback, enabling the speaker and listener to resolve confusion. Writing has fewer cues, lacking tone of voice and body language. Writing is often asynchronous and lacks direct and timely feedback. Writing is prone to creating confusion. Clear writing limits confusion.
We’re going to dive into a two-part series on how to write clearly. The first part relates to clear sentences. The next part will relate to clear thinking. The good news is clear writing (and clear speaking) is a learnable skill. I work on my writing skills every day, and I feel myself improving every day. Writing improvement is an iterative process with a compounding effect and benefits. You may feel you’re a failure every time you write. However, you will see dramatic differences when comparing your writing today with writing from months or years ago.
Writing clear sentences
I’m going to presume basic grammar knowledge. We’re not going to cover comma or colon usage. We’re going to focus on writing simply. Simple writing respects your audience. The easier something is to read, the more likely someone is to finish reading it and understand it. Simple writing is somehow anathema to education and perceived intelligence. Education trains people to be complex writers. In my schooling, my teachers praised long, compound, and complex grammatically correct sentences. Teachers praised advanced vocabulary (like “anathema”). I took my writing’s complexity as a signal of my intelligence. It’s taken years to unlearn this habit.
I like Paul Graham’s writings because he focuses on simplicity. He even recently wrote a piece titled Write Simply. We think about writing similarly. My favorite lines from his piece relate to sentence complexity:
“The main reason I write simply is that it offends me not to. When I write a sentence that seems too complicated, or that uses unnecessarily intellectual words, it doesn't seem fancy to me. It seems clumsy.”
Writing simply is hard. It requires training your mind. If your thoughts are long and convoluted, your writing will be as well. I invest in training my mind to write and think crisply. I’ve developed my own simple and clear style over fifteen years of deliberate practice by observing how others react to what I write and say. Here are my Six Tenants for Sentences.
1. Use shorter sentences
Always consider your audience. Why is your audience reading? It’s likely to get information or understand what they need to do. Longer sentences are mentally taxing. Long sentences make the reader want to stop reading. Long sentences make it harder to understand what the writer is trying to say.
What do you think is my average sentence length? To this point, it’s only 10 words. My writing may not be particularly beautiful, but it is clear. I’m not making you or my other readers work to understand my ideas.
Now, think about things you dread reading. I read many journal articles by education researchers. I dread it. I find it daunting, and I often find myself actively avoiding reading research. Most academic writing is overly complex and content-dense. I find myself engaged when reading clear academic writing. I am more prone to cite and use clear articles.
A general rule of thumb is to have fewer than 20 words in each sentence. The New York Times averages 15. It’s fine to go longer if the sentence remains clear, but you want to avoid having too many long sentences strung together. Vary your sentence length and have a long sentence (20 or more words) at most every 3 sentences. I try to average under 15 words per sentence. There are three strategies for shorter sentences:
Avoid compound sentences. Compound sentences combine two related sentences with a conjunction (e.g., and, but, or, however). Compound sentences can improve flow, but I try to use them sparingly. I often find myself splitting compound sentences into two distinct sentences when revising.
Remove prepositional phrases. Prepositional phrases modify verbs or nouns. I look at prepositional phrases like Mark Twain looked at adjectives. Mark said, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” Prepositional phrases add additional meaning to writing. Yet, I often find the additional context many prepositional phrases add ends up being unnecessary within the context of the broader piece. I hunt unnecessary phrases when revising. If a lengthy phrase is necessary, I consider the overall sentence length and determine whether to form two sentences to cover the content.
Break sentences into two. I seek out and destroy long sentences. My general rule of thumb is always to break up sentences that go onto three lines. A line is typically about 20 words, meaning sentences over 40 words should not exist. Breaking up sentences increases readability and clarity even if the overall word count is longer.
2. Use fewer sentences
Writing simply means writing concisely. Unnecessary paragraphs and sentences create confusion and diminish understanding. It’s difficult to be concise in a first draft. I make my writing concise when I’m revising by doing:
Eliminating unnecessary sentences. I often find entire sentences and even paragraphs I write that are unnecessary to make my point. These always seemed like a good idea when I wrote them. However, my writing’s purpose may have shifted, or the point became less valuable under closer examination. My strategy is to identify the purpose of my writing and the key points I want to make. Then, I evaluate each paragraph and sentence to determine its value. I eliminate anything that isn’t valuable.
Identifying redundant sentences. I occasionally find sentences or paragraphs that make eerily similar points. These most frequently occur in close succession – e.g., in two consecutive sentences. I spot these and delete one or combine them if it creates a better overall sentence or paragraph.
Combining sentences. Sometimes, a sentence or paragraph adds very little useful information – perhaps just a few words or a phrase. In these cases, I combine sentences to create a clearer and shorter product. Often, the eliminated sentence becomes merely an adjective or a prepositional phrase in the combined sentence.
3. Avoid long and strung-together prepositional phrases
There’s nothing I dislike more than a lengthy prepositional phrase. These decrease readability and make writing lose impact. I hold a particular hatred for long prepositional phrases used before a sentence and within a sentence’s middle, such as between a subject and verb. I believe this is lazy writing.
When you start a new sentence, do not start it with a long prepositional phrase. It makes the sentence less punchy. The reader is left confused about what the prepositional phrase describes until reading the subject or verb. The more unanswered questions your reader has in their mind, the less they’ll understand. You want to keep the reader thinking about content and not your sentence structures. Often, a sentence will work better by placing the prepositional phrase you intended for the sentence’s beginning at its end.
Prepositional phrases in the middle of sentences make reading difficult. Placing a prepositional phrase in the middle of a sentence by modifying a subject such as in this sentence creates confusion. The reader is looking for the action the subject takes, but the verb is more distant from the subject than is typical. A better path is to move the prepositional phrase to the sentence’s end to make reading easier, such as this sentence.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t use prepositional phrases before or in the middle of sentences. You need to do it intelligently. Keep the prepositional phrases short and make sure they’re required in that exact location to understand the writing’s meaning. Otherwise, either remove the prepositional phrase or put it at the sentence’s end.
4. Minimize the use of linking words
Linking words improve flow by linking sentences together. Furthermore (a linking word), linking words can improve readability by helping readers understand connections. I view the use of linking words as a coverup for lazy writing. Sentences should naturally flow together without being explicitly linked. However (a linking word), I will use linking words to enhance clarity, such as to signal a coming contrast (e.g., however, yet, but) or a new thought (e.g., first, second). Yet (a linking word), I did not need to use furthermore or however in the previous sentences. My style removed the need for these linking words. Try to remove linking words from your writing, such as furthermore, thereafter, finally, and in addition. This will take some practice and time as you’ll find yourself rewriting sentences to improve natural flow.
5. Vary sentences
Varying sentence structure and length makes writing more engaging, meaning people will be more attentive to your thoughts and read further in your writing. If you’ve made it this far after 1,500 words, I’ve done a good job varying my sentences.
I sometimes use the same subject for multiple sentences in a row for effect, but I change up my subjects, verbs, sentence style, and lengths frequently. Some sentences are meant to be jarring, keeping you on your toes. Others are short and punchy when I make a point I want you to remember or linger on. Others are longer and detail-packed. The key is to be intentional. I’ve learned to vary my sentences naturally while writing through deliberate practice and reading good authors. But, I also rigorously look for sentence variation opportunities when revising my writing.
6. Write in the active voice
Active voice is easier to read and more engaging. It follows a simple structure. There is a clear subject that performs the action stated by the verb. For example, “The person sang a song.” In this case, the person is the subject and performs the action of singing. Passive voice is more difficult to read and decreases the impact of your writing. The passive voice has a subject that receives the action stated by the verb. For example, “The song was sung by the person.” In this case, the subject, the person, is after the verb phrase, was sung.
It’s more difficult to understand passive voice because the subject is unclear until the person nearly completes reading the sentence. Placing the subject at the sentence’s beginning clarifies what the sentence is about from its beginning and decreases the distance between the subject and its action. As such, active voice is more concise and requires less thought from the reader.
A good strategy for spotting passive voice is to find the action (verb) in each sentence and who or what is performing the action (subject). Subjects after the verb typically signal passive voice and present an opportunity to improve clarity by changing it to active voice.
What to do now
You should develop a plan for implementing the Six Tenants for Sentences. The best way to improve is through deliberate practice (see my essay The best way to improve writing), including self-assessing and revising your writing. Self-assessment doesn’t just involve reading your writing for simplicity and clarity; it requires considering how your audience responds. The response, or lack thereof, is feedback that can help you continue to improve.
How you write clearly should also consider the stakes of your writing (see my essay How to write business communications). I rigorously apply the Six Tenants to high-stakes writing, where I spend significant time revising. For low-stakes writing, clarity matters, but your audience will be more forgiving, and confusion is more easily cleared up. I will prioritize short sentences and concise writing for low-stakes, but I spend less time varying my sentences, reducing prepositional phrases, and minimizing my linking words.
Remember, improving your writing is an iterative process. Try to focus on self-assessing and revising your writing for clarity when you do high-stakes writing, such as to your boss, a customer, or the public. Over time, you’ll find yourself naturally improving your low-stakes writing with the people you interact with daily.
I expect to share the next part on clear thinking in the coming weeks. Make sure you subscribe to The Writing Times (if you have not done so already). Also, share this issue with your friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.