I recently did an Internet search for “clear writing” and
frequently came up with the same list of “10 principles of
clear writing”. Each one is a piece of very good advice;
however the list has two faults.
First, I am viscerally
suspicious of all 10-item lists. They seem contrived. It’s as
if the writer decided that any self-respecting list should have
10 items, then set about inventing them to meet the
More importantly, these 10 principles of clear
writing are not really principles at all, but rather tips and
What’s the difference? Tips and techniques
tell you what to do; principles tell you why you are doing
Understanding why you are doing something, i.e. the
benefit you will gain, helps ensure that you will actually do it
and do it consistently. Too often when we are told only what to
do, we follow the instruction half-heartedly, inconsistently, or
not at all.
For example, my last year at the University of
California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I tutored writing to make a bit
of much-needed cash. One day a first year student came to me with
a note from a professor, saying: “Young lady, I advise you
either to leave my class immediately or prepare to fail it.” I
concluded that she was misapplying a fundamental writing
principle, so I explained it to her and had her do a few simple
exercises to be certain she understood it. By the end of term,
her almost certain “F” had shot up to a gratifying “B”.
This was not an isolated case. When students were having
writing difficulties, it was generally because they were: 1)
unfamiliar with a fundamental principle, 2) inconsistently
applying it, 3) improperly applying it, or 4) not applying it at
I am a marketing communication consultant, after
having been a newspaper editor, a writer with The Wall Street
Journal, and European marketing communication director for two
major international companies. Over my 40 year career, I have
been continually appalled by how poorly top business executives,
academics, researchers, and other clearly intelligent people
express themselves, both in writing and speaking.
years ago I tried to analyze this depressing phenomenon. As a
result, I defined three key principles that underlie virtually
every kind of expository (non-fiction) writing and speaking. To
give them strength and substance, I cast them in the form of
quasi-mathematical formula. As formula, these principles not only
tell you what to do, they also tell you why you are doing it and
how to go about it.
I would first like to briefly explain
these three principles, then see how they coincide with lists of
tips and techniques that masquerade as principles.
people accept that a good text should be “clear” and
“concise”. There is a third principle that is seldom
mentioned. A good text should also be “dense”.Clarity
Being clear is not a matter of personal
appreciation. Do you find your text clear? You should; after all,
you wrote it. But how can you be certain that it will be clear to
According to the clarity principle, to be clear
you must do three things:
1. Emphasize what is of key
2. De-emphasize what is of secondary
3. Eliminate what is of no importance.
short: Cl = EDE
If you follow the formula, before you
start writing you must first determine what is of key importance,
i.e. what are the key ideas you want your readers to take away
from your text?
This is not always easy to do. It is far
simpler to say that everything is of key importance, so you put
in everything you have. However, unless you do the work of
defining what you really want your readers to know, they won't do
it for you. They will simply get lost in your text and either
give up or come out the other end not knowing what they have
Next, as you write your text, you must be certain
to de-emphasize what is of secondary importance. Why? Because if
you really want your readers to recognize and retain the key
ideas, then you don’t want them getting lost in the details.
Details (information of secondary importance) explain and support
the key ideas. They must never overwhelm them.
you must ruthless eliminate what is of no importance. Why?
Because any information that adds nothing to explaining and
supporting the key ideas will tend to obscure them, which is
exactly the opposite of what you want.Conciseness
According to the conciseness principle, your
text should be as:
1. Long as necessary
2. Short as
In symbols: Co = LS
"As long as
necessary" means covering all the key ideas you identified
under “clarity”, and all the information of secondary
importance needed to explain and support them. Note that nothing
is said here about the number of words, because it is irrelevant.
If it takes 500 words to be "as long as necessary",
then 500 words must be used. If it takes 1500 words, then this is
all right, too.
"As short as possible" means
staying as close as you can to the minimum. Not because people
prefer short texts; in the abstract the terms “long" and
"short" have no meaning (so-called “weasel words”).
The important point is: All words beyond the minimum tend to
damage clarity. Subconsciously, readers will continually be
trying to understand why those words are there, and will be
continually failing because they serve no purpose.Density
Density is a less familiar concept than clarity
and conciseness, but is equally important. According to the
density principle, you text should contain:
2. Logically linked
In other words: D
Using precise information rather than wishy-washy
weasel words in a text aids clarity. For example, if you say it
is a “hot” day, what do you mean? One reader might interpret
hot as 24° C while another might interpret is as 36° C.
However, if you say the temperature outside is 28° C, there is
no room for interpretation—or misinterpretation.
precise information also generates confidence, because it tells
the reader that you really know what you are talking about. This
helps to hold the reader’s attention and makes it easier to get
your points across.
However, precise data (facts) by
themselves are insufficient. To be meaningful, data must be
organized to create “information”. There are two important
tests to apply when converting data into information. A.
Is a particular piece of data really needed? As
we have seen, unnecessary data damages clarity and ultimately
confidence. Therefore, any data that do not either aid
understanding or promote confidence should be rigorously
The logical link
between data must be made explicit to prevent the reader from
coming to false conclusions. Example: A singular occurrence may
be misinterpreted as part of a broad pattern; a general policy
may be misinterpreted as applying only in specific circumstances,
To ensure that a logical link is clear, place the
two pieces of data as close to each other as possible, preferably
right next to each other. When data are widely separated, their
logical link is masked. If you don’t make the logical
connection, it is unrealistic to expect readers will do so for
Keeping these true principles - clarity,
conciseness, density - firmly in mind allows us to re-evaluate
the oft-quoted ten “principles” of clear writing” (i.e.
tips and techniques), thereby making them significantly more
meaningful, and significantly more useful. 1. Keep
This is usually interpreted to mean an
average sentence length of 15 - 18 words. Not because readers
can’t handle longer sentences. However, when length rises above
this average, sentences are likely to be poorly constructed,
thereby damaging clarity.
But remember, 15 - 18 words is
an average. Don’t shun longer sentences. A well constructed
long sentence is often clearer than two or more shorter ones.
Why? Because the longer sentence betters shows the logical
linkage among the various elements, which would be lost by
splitting it apart.2. Prefer the simple to the
If the precise word is long, don’t hesitant to
use it, because not using it would damage clarity. On the other
hand, if a shorter word would do just as well, prefer it.
Examples: “dog” rather than “canine”, "change"
rather than "modification", "entrance” rather
than “ingress”, etc. 3. Prefer the familiar
This is just a variation of point 2. If you have a
choice between two words, use the one that most people are likely
to recognize and use themselves. Examples: “insult” rather
than “imprecate”, “daily” rather than “quotidian”4.
Avoid unnecessary words
In other words, be concise. 5.
Use active verbs
In an individual sentence, whether you
use an active or a passive verb is of little consequence.
However, over an entire text it becomes very important. Active
verbs tend to enhance clarity; conversely, too many passive verbs
tend to damage it.6. Write the way you speak
is a very useful technique, but don’t take it literally. When
we speak, we generally use simpler vocabulary and sentence
structures than when we write. Writing the way you speak is a
good way to produce a first draft. However, when we speak, our
sentence structures are often confused and our vocabulary
imprecise. These faults must be rigorously corrected in the
second, third or later drafts.7. Use terms your reader
In other words, be dense. Use specifics; avoid
weasel words. When making a general statement, be certain to
support it with concrete data.8. Tie in with your
We are again talking about density,
i.e. using precise information. Be certain that the terminology
you chose is compatible with your readers’ experience. If you
need to use a word not likely to be familiar to your readers,
define it the first time it appears. If it is really key, define
it again later on in the text. Also be wary of words that look
familiar but have a very different meaning in the context of your
Example: “Insult” is medical jargon for an
injury or trauma. However, talking about an “insult” to the
heart without first explaining this unconventional meaning of the
word is likely to leave your readers scratching their heads. 9.
Make full use of variety
This suggestion is almost
superfluous. If you conscientiously apply the three writing
principles of clarity, conciseness, and density, you will almost
automatically introduce variety of sentence length and structure
into your text.
Avoid introducing too much variety of
vocabulary. Constantly changing terminology for the sake of
variety damages clarity. If several words mean essential the same
thing, pick one or two of them and shun the others. Introduce
equivalent terms in such a way that the reader clearly
understands they mean the same thing.
(Confusing) Manned space travel to Mars is once again being
considered. The Red Planet has fascinated mankind for centuries.
The “God of War” is the fourth planet from the sun - our own
Earth is the third - and it is our closest celestial neighbor
except for the moon.
2. (Clear) Manned space travel to
Mars is once again being considered. Popularly known as the “Red
Planet”, Mars has fascinated mankind for centuries. Being the
forth planet from the sun (Earth is the third), it is our closest
celestial neighbor except for the moon. 10. Write to
express, not to impress
The purpose of expository
(non-fiction) writing is to inform or instruct, not to show off
your literary prowess. The fact is, the better you write, the
less people are likely to notice. And this is how it should be.
The reader’s full attention should be on what you are saying,
not how you are saying it.