You have a responsibility to write clearly, and we have advice on how to do it

You Have a Responsibility to Write Clearly, and We Have Advice on How to Do It

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Principles of Clear Writing

1. Write in the active voice. The active voice eliminates confusion by forcing you to name the actor in a sentence.

This construction makes clear to the reader who is to perform the duty. The passive voice makes sentences longer and roundabout. Who is responsible is much less obvious.

Passive verbs have a form of the verb to be plus the past participle of a main verb.

  • plus
  • Examples of passive verbs:
  • was received,
  • is being considered,
  • has been selected.

The passive voice reverses the natural, active order of English sentences. In the following passive example the receiver of the action comes before the actor.

Passive: The regulation [receiver] was written [verb] by the drafter [actor]. Active: The drafter [actor] wrote [verb] the regulation [receiver].

Passive constructions are confusing when used in regulations. Active sentences must have actors, but passive ones are complete without them.

Putting the actor before the verb forces you to be clear about responsibility.

  • The messenger will deliver the material.
  • The contractor will decide the start date.
  • The administrator must approve the figures.

The passive voice is appropriate when the actor is unknown, unimportant, or obvious. This does not usually apply in regulatory text.

  • Small items are often stolen.
  • The applications have been mailed.

2. Use action verbs

Writing Clearly and Simply

The task of writing clearly and simply has never been either clear or simple. In fact, it can be one of the most difficult of all writing tasks. Clear and simple writing is an art to which many aspire and few achieve.

Even so, the understandability of web content depends upon clear and simple writing.

Unclear or confusing writing is an accessibility barrier to all readers, but can be especially difficult for people with reading disorders or cognitive disabilities.

“My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”
—Ernest Hemingway

“Unless one is a genius, it is best to aim at being intelligible.”
—Anthony Hope Hawkins

Language and cultural differences matter.

To complicate matters, the “rules” of clear and simple writing in English may not apply at all in other languages, or even between cultures that speak the same language.

Many English-speaking countries value directness and explicitness in written communication. Other cultures feel that this style is too blunt, and perhaps even insulting to readers.

Despite the difficulties in defining the meaning of “clear and simple” writing, the suggestions in this section may still benefit writers of web content. The suggestions serve as general guidelines for writing clear and simple English, primarily from an American English perspective. Those who write in other languages should seek resources that apply specifically to those languages.

Cognitive abilities matter. Not everyone reads at the same level or has the ability to understand text content, even when presented clearly and simply.

Reading disorders, memory disorders, attention deficit disorders, and other conditions which affect the brain's cognitive processes can compromise a person's ability to benefit from text.

The guidelines presented below will improve readability for many people, but not for all.

12 writing tools to make COVID-19 coverage comprehensible. One stands above the rest

This writing advice becomes now and then more urgent. I dragged it out to help reporters covering the Great Recession. I am sharing it again to see if it can stand up to the test of a great pandemic.

I don’t expect such advice to “go viral” — what a newly loaded phrase — but I hope it spreads in support of coverage that takes responsibility for what readers and viewers know and understand. Our goal is twofold:

  1. To give people what they need to make safe decisions about their personal health and the public’s health.
  2. To give readers confidence in their knowledge so they will not be harmed by the type of anxiety that leads to panic — and worse.

There are a dozen strategies of clarity and comprehensibility listed below, some with specific reference to coverage of the coronavirus. I have rearranged their original order from the belief that there is one writing strategy that stands above the rest.

While accuracy is clearly the most significant virtue in reporting on something as consequential as a global pandemic, it too often happens that reporters don’t take the next step — working to be understood.

Yes, a writer can be accurate and incomprehensible. Perhaps the only thing worse is to be inaccurate and comprehensible because then readers will be acting upon information that is useless or even dangerous.

1. Slow down the pace of information, especially at points of complexity

A child calls a parent on the phone and blurts out that they are in trouble, talking at the speed of light. What does the parent say? “Slow down, honey, slow down. Now tell me what happened.”

The great writing teacher Don Murray taught me this lesson, and I have tried to pass it along to countless writers: “Use shorter words, shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity.”

What does that have to do with slowing down the pace of information?

My best illustration is borrowed from my book “Writing Tools.” Here is a single sentence from an old editorial about state government. It is titled “Curb State Mandates.”

To avert the all too common enactment of requirements without regard for their local cost and tax impact, however, the commission recommends that statewide interest should be clearly identified on any proposed mandates, and that the state should partially reimburse local government for some state imposed mandates and fully for those involving employee compensations, working conditions and pensions.

The writer of this sentence is working hard, but not hard enough. The writer suffers from what psychologist Steven Pinker calls the “curse of knowledge.” He has forgotten what he did not know. And now the writer knows so much, he makes the mistake of thinking the reader can keep up.

So how would you slow down the pace of “Curb State Mandates”? Here is my best try.

The State of New York often passes laws telling local governments what to do. These laws have a name. They are called “state mandates.” On many occasions, these laws improve life for everyone in the state.

But they come with a cost. Too often, the state doesn’t consider the cost to local governments, or how much money taxpayers will have to shell out. So we have an idea.

The state should pay back local governments for some of these so-called mandates.

The differences in these passages are worth measuring. The original writer gives us one sentence. I give the reader eight. The original writer gives us 58 words, while I deliver 81 words in about the same amount of space, including 59 one-syllable words. My words and sentences are shorter. The passage is clearer.

To the point, the pace of my version is slower.

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Since it’s easier to read, why wouldn’t I say the pace is faster? In a sense, yes, it feels faster because the path is smoother. But a sentence is a sentence. There is a period at the end. The Brits call the period a “full stop,” and that’s what it is, a stop sign.

The pace of longer sentences — well-written ones, anyway — has to be fast because we are speeding along, reaching for the period that completes the thought. A series of shorter sentences — with lots of stop signs — offers a slower pace, where readers are more able to grasp a piece of information and then use that piece to get ready for the next sentence.

This is so important I want to repeat it: Too often, the reader gets sprayed with long complicated sentences and just can’t keep up. Think of the period as a stop sign. The more stop signs, the slower the pace, which is good if you are trying to make something clear.

Now let’s see how this might apply to coverage of the current public health crisis. I found this brief description from CNN.

The coronavirus is actually not one type of virus. It is a large family of viruses that also includes SARS and other minor to major respiratory illnesses. Coronaviruses can be spread between animals and people, as we have seen with this current strain. The term “corona,” which is from a Latin root meaning crown or ring of light, refers to the shape of the virus under a microscope.

Write Clearly and Concisely | IEEE

Do you often have to verbally explain something you’ve written? You may not be writing clearly and concisely enough. Use this growing knowledge resource to learn how.

What does writing clearly and concisely mean?
Writing clearly and concisely means choosing your words deliberately, constructing your sentences carefully, and using grammar properly. By writing clearly and concisely, you will get straight to your point in a way your audience can easily comprehend.

Why should I write clearly and concisely?
In order to succeed in your communication task, you need to keep your audience’s attention. Writing clearly and concisely is one way to capture and retain their interest. Rambling on, conversely, may lose your audience’s attention.

How do I write clearly and concisely?

Several techniques can help you learn to write clearly and concisely in order to motivate your audience to read and respond favorably to your communication.

Choose your words deliberately

The words you choose can either enhance or interfere with your meaning and your audience’s comprehension. Follow these guidelines to develop a strategy for choosing the most effective words for your communication task.

Use simple words

Paul Anderson, in his book Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach, points to studies that show users comprehend simple words more quickly, even when they’re familiar with a more elaborate counterpart [1].

This table shows some commonly-used elaborate words and their simple alternatives [1]:

Elaborate word Simple word
find out
make up

This guideline doesn’t mean you should eliminate all elaborate terms.

You may be familiar with technical processes and their related terms. If your entire audience will understand technical terms, use them. If not, either substitute with simple terms instead, or if there are no substitutes, explain the meaning of the technical term using one of these methods [1]:

  • Use a synonym: “memory” instead of “RAM.”
  • Describe the term: “RAM allows your computer to run more quickly and efficiently.”
  • Compare the term with a common concept:

Efficient Ways to Improve Student Writing

Strategies, Ideas, and Recommendations from the faculty Development Literature

General Strategies

  • View the improvement of students’ writing as your responsibility.Teaching writing is not only the job of the English department alone.  Writing is an essential tool for learning a discipline and helping students improve their writing skills is a responsibility for all faculty.
  • Let students know that you value good writing.Stress the importance of clear, thoughtful writing. Faculty who tell students that good writing will be rewarded and poor writing will be penalized receive better essays than instructors who don't make such demands. In the syllabus, on the first day, and throughout the term, remind students that they must make their best effort in expressing themselves on paper. Back up your statements with comments on early assignments that show you really mean it, and your students will respond.
  • Regularly assign brief writing exercises in your classes. To vary the pace of a lecture course, ask students to write a few minutes during class. Some mixture of in-class writing, outside writing assignments, and exams with open-ended questions will give students the practice they need to improve their skills.
  • Provide guidance throughout the writing process. After you have made the assignment, discuss the value of outlines and notes, explain how to select and narrow a topic, and critique the first draft, define plagiarism as well.
  • Don't feel as though you have to read and grade every piece of your students' writing. Ask students to analyze each other's work during class, or ask them to critique their work in small groups. Students will learn that they are writing in order to think more clearly, not obtain a grade. Keep in mind, you can collect students' papers and skim their work.
  • Find other faculty members who are trying to use writing more effectively in their courses. Pool ideas about ways in which writing can help students learn more about the subject matter. See if there is sufficient interest in your discipline to warrant drawing up guidelines. Students welcome handouts that give them specific instructions on how to write papers for a particular course or in a particular subject area.

Teaching Writing When You Are Not an English Teacher

  • Remind students that writing is a process that helps us clarify ideas. Tell students that writing is a way of learning, not an end in itself. Also let them know that writing is a complicated, messy, nonlinear process filled with false starts. Help them to identify the writer's key activities:
    • Developing ideas
    • Finding a focus and a thesis
    • Composing a draft
    • Getting feedback and comments from others
    • Revising the draft by expanding ideas, clarifying meaning, reorganizing
    • Editing
    • Presenting the finished work to readers
  • Explain that writing is hard work. Share with your class your own struggles in grappling with difficult topics. If they know that writing takes effort, they won't be discouraged by their own pace or progress. One faculty member shared with students their notebook that contained the chronology of one of his published articles: first ideas, successive drafts, submitted manuscript, reviewers' suggested changes, revised version, galley proofs, and published article.
  • Give students opportunities to talk about their writing. Students need to talk about papers in progress so that they can formulate their thoughts, generate ideas, and focus their topics. Take five or ten minutes of class time for students to read their writing to each other in small groups or pairs. It's important for students to hear what their peers have written.
  • Encourage students to revise their work. Provide formal steps for revision by asking students to submit first drafts of papers for your review or for peer critique. You can also give your students the option of revising and rewriting one assignment during the semester for a higher grade. Faculty report that 10 to 40 percent of the students take advantage of this option.
  • Explain thesis statements. A thesis statement makes an assertion about some issue. A common student problem is to write papers that present overviews of facts with no thesis statement or that have a diffuse thesis statement.
  • Stress clarity and specificity. The more the abstract and difficult the topic, the more concrete the student's language should be. Inflated language and academic jargon camouflage rather than clarify their point.
  • Explain the importance of grammar and sentence structure, as well as content. Students shouldn't think that English teachers are the only judges of grammar and style. Tell your students that you will be looking at both quality of their writing and the content.
  • Distribute bibliographies and tip sheets on good writing practices. Check with your English department or writing center to identify materials that can be easily distributed to students. Consider giving your students a bibliography of writing guides, for example:
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Crews, F.C. Random House Handbook. (6th ed.) New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992.

A classic comprehensive textbook for college students. Well written and well worth reading.

Lanham, R.A. Revising Prose. (3rd ed.) New York: Scribner's, 1991. Techniques for eliminating

bureaucratese and restoring energy to tired prose.

Tollefson, S. K. Grammar Grams and Grammar Grams II. New York: HarperCollins, 1989,

1992. Two short, witty guides that answer common questions about grammar, style, and usage. Both are fun to read.

  • Science and Engineering Barrass, R. Scientists Must Write. New York: Chapman and Hall, 1978. Biddle, A. W., and Bean, D. J. Writer's Guide: Life Sciences. Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1987.
  • Arts and Humanities Barnet, S. A Short Guide to Writing About Art. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989. Goldman, B. Reading and Writing in the Arts. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1978.
  • Social Sciences Biddle, A. W., Fulwiler, T., and Holland, K.M. Writer's Guide: Psychology. Lexington, Mass,:

Heath, 1987.McCloskey, D. N. The Writing of Economics. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

  • Ask a composition instructor to give a presentation to your students. Invite a guest speaker from the composition department or student learning center to talk to your students about effective writing and common writing problems. Faculty who have invited these experts report that such presentations reinforce the values of the importance of writing.
  • Let students know about available tutoring services. Individual or group tutoring in writing is available on most campuses. Ask someone from the tutoring center to give a demonstration in your class.
  • Use computers to help students write better. Locally developed and commercially available software are now being used by faculty to help students plan, write, and revise their written work. Some software available allows instructors to monitor students' work in progress and lets students collaborate with their classmates.

Assigning In-Class Writing Activities

  • Ask students to write what they know about a topic before you discuss it. Ask your students to write a brief summary of what they already know or what opinions they hold regarding the subject you are about to discuss. The purpose of this is to focus the students' attention, there is no need to collect the summaries.
  • Ask students to respond in writing to questions you pose during class. Prior to class starting, list two or three short-answer questions on the board and ask your students to write down their responses. Your questions might call for a review of material you have already discussed or recalling information from assigned readings.
  • Ask students to write from a pro or con position. When presenting an argument, stop and ask your students to write down all the reasons and evidence they can think of that supports one side or the other. These statements can be used as the basis for discussion.
  • During class, pause for a three-minute write. Periodically ask students to write freely for three minutes on a specific question or topic. They should write whatever pops into their mind without worrying about grammar, spelling, phrasing, or organization. This kind of free writing, according to writing experts, helps students synthesize diverse ideas and identify points they may not understand. There is no need to collect these exercises.
  • Have students write a brief summary at the end of class. At the end of the class period, give your students index cards to jot down the key themes, major points, or general principles of the day's discussion. You can easily collect the index cards and review them to see whether the class understood the discussion.
  • Have one student keep minutes to be read at the next class meeting. By taking minutes, students get a chance to develop their listening, synthesizing, and writing skills. Boris (1983) suggests the following:
    • Prepare your students by having everyone take careful notes for the class period, go home and rework them into minutes, and hand them in for comments. It can be the students' discretion whether the minutes are in outline or narrative form.
    • Decide on one to two good models to read or distribute to the class.
    • At the beginning of each of the following classes, assign one student to take minutes for the period.
    • Give a piece of carbon paper to the student who is taking minutes so that you can have a rough copy. The student then takes the original home and revises it in time to read it aloud at the next class meeting.
    • After the student has read their minutes, ask other students to comment on their accuracy and quality. If necessary, the student will revise the minutes and turn in two copies, one for grading and one for your files.
  • Structure small group discussion around a writing task. For example, have your students pick three words that are of major importance to the day's session. Ask your class to write freely for two to three minutes on just one of the words. Next, give the students five to ten minutes to meet in groups to share what they have written and generate questions to ask in class.
  • Use peer response groups. Divide your class into groups of three or four, no larger. Ask your students to bring to class enough copies of a rough draft of a paper for each person in their group. Give your students guidelines for critiquing the drafts. In any response task, the most important step is for the reader to note the part of the paper that is the strongest and describe to the writer why it worked so well. The following instructions can also be given to the reader:
    • State the main point of the paper in a single sentence
    • List the major subtopics
    • Identify confusing sections of the paper
    • Decide whether each section of the paper has enough detail, evidence, and information
    • Indicate whether the paper's points follow one another in sequence
    • Judge the appropriateness of the opening and concluding paragraphs
    • Identify the strengths of the paper
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How To Write Clearly: Using Precise and Concise Language


A writer's job is to create meaning for readers. Expository writers in particular are responsible for clearly spelling out the relationships between ideas and for leading readers convincingly to a desired conclusion.

In the business world that most students will enter, this reader-oriented, presentational writing will be in high demand. Even in college, when an instructor asks you to write 2,000 words, he means 2,000 good words.

You must cut out wordiness and use precise language.

This TIP sheet offers two ways to move beyond simple grammatical correctness. It teaches you to streamline writing by using the following:

  • Precise language: A vocabulary of precise nouns and vivid verbs helps you create strong mental pictures and avoid wordiness.
  • Concise language: Using the fewest possible words without sacrificing meaning makes your writing more understandable. Especially avoid unnecessary use of the verb “to be” when it contributes to nominalizations and expletives.

Precise languageNever sacrifice clarity to novelty. This sometimes occurs when student writers work with a thesaurus in one hand, choosing substitutes from a list of approximately similar, though unfamiliar, words.

“Visage” replaces “face,” “endeavors” replaces “tries,” “cogitation” replaces “thought,” “subsequent to” replaces “after.

” Or, as a result of late-night brainstorming (or having read too many bad financial aid packets, perhaps?), “at the present time” replaces “now,” “in the event of” replaces “if,” and “in the majority of instances” replaces “usually.”

For example, a speech writer for President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote the first sentence below; FDR himself revised it:

We are endeavoring to construct a more inclusive society.We're going to make a country in which no one is left out.

Never sacrifice meaning to novelty. That is, never search for a synonym just to dress up an idea, and never use an unfamiliar word from the thesaurus to replace a perfectly good familiar word.

Thesaurus words may be similar or related, yet not be identical or even equivalent in meaning. Unfamiliar words may carry the wrong connotation or be simply unsuitable for your audience.

Learn a word's meaning and usage before using it.

For example, the second sentence below is not identical in meaning with the first (or indeed even comprehensible!), although the word substitutions come from a standard thesaurus:

In addition to studying Western culture, students should be required to study Asian, African, or other cultures. This expanded cultural study would foster understanding of the modern global community.

In addition to examination of Western enlightenment, a pupil ought to remain to apply one's mind to Oriental, African, or choice cultures. Such an enlarged edifying trance would guest of empathy of latter-day universal public.

Never sacrifice meaning to belonging. That is, avoid jargon, or words and expressions known only to people with specialized knowledge or interests. Even if readers know the jargon, it is more difficult to read than plain English and slows down comprehension.

Check your writing once expressly to locate jargon, and cut out as much as you can. If technical words or expressions are unavoidable (and they sometimes are), define them the first time you use them and try sometimes to substitute a plainer word.

The trick is to cut the verbiage without sacrificing meaning.

  • For example, contrast the two sentences below, the first written by a scientist using scientific jargon, the second revised into plain English:
  • The biota exhibited a one hundred percent mortality response.
  • All the fish died.

Choosing precise nouns makes it unnecessary to add layers of descriptive adjectives that lengthen sentences and comprehension time. (Your adjectives, anyway, will have greater impact if they are not overused.) Compare the following generic nouns on the left with the more connotative suggestions on the right:

youth juvenile, teenager, child, adolescent
woman lady, mistress, matron, femme fatale
house cabin, mansion, cottage, villa
group horde, clan, team, committee

Perhaps even more than nouns and adjectives, vivid verbs awaken strong images in readers' minds. Strong verbs do more than almost anything else to improve prose. Compare the following:

Lit up ignited
Leave behind abandon
Go back return
Get the audience involved involve the audience
Got to see that realized
Got better improved
Got there arrived
Put in installed, deposited
Put off postpone, delay
Put into action activate
Put in place arrange, place

Concise languageAfter college, when a job recruiter reads your resume, he or she may simply refuse to wade through excess verbiage. A wordy resume may be tossed. And a future supervisor will want to be able to comprehend your summary report rapidly and painlessly.

Writing that is concise packs maximum meaning into the fewest possible words–think of how you would pack your suitcase for an extended tour of Europe. If you use precise language, you will probably find you are already using fewer words.

However, if you examine how you use “to be” verbs–am, is, are, were, was, been–you may find even more that you can condense.

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