Clarity

Professional Writer and Editor

Readers, like writers, are busy people, and they are unlikely to spend time trying to decipher the meaning of wordy, vague, or confusing text. Therefore, writers should themselves spend the time to ensure that their writing is as clear as possible.

Writing clearly should be one of the most important objectives, if not the most important objective, of good writers. The ability to write clearly is of course a skill that is learned over time, primarily through reading good writing and through the actual act of writing. Like any skill, the more you write, the clearer and more effective your writing will become.

Avoid Jargon

Jargon is specialized language used by the members of a particular field or industry, organization, or other group. Though it may be acceptable and even useful among the members of the specific group, jargon should be avoided when writing to a general audience. Even when used among members of a specific group, jargon sometimes causes sentences to be needlessly wordy. In such cases, the sentence should be revised.

Not: 

The director said that by the end of the year they would equip our homes with Wi-Fi, so everyone will have to upgrade from dial-up to a broadband connection and use the same ISP.

But:

The director said that by the end of the year they would equip our homes with wireless Internet connection, so everyone will have to upgrade from dial-up to high-speed Internet and use the same Internet service provider.

Jargon is also language that has been inflated or made flowery simply for the purpose of impressing others. In reality, however, readers are far more impressed by simple, clear, powerful writing. Sentences filled with this second type of pretentious jargon should always be revised.

Not: 

In our department, they recently instigated downsizing in order to more efficiently use their human resources by reducing overhead.

But:

In our department, they recently began laying people off to reduce costs.

Avoid Obsolete or Invented Words

In most contexts, it is best to avoid using words that are obsolete and no longer used or that are invented. Invented words (or neologisms) include those that are too new to the lexicon to be standard; many such words are never accepted into the language. In formal writing, a neologism should be used solely if it is the only word that will convey your meaning.

Not: 

Erelong they will have to make a decision about the merger twixt themselves and Dairy Soul.

Perhaps it is because of his love of literature that he tries to metaphorize everything he says to his co-workers.

But:

Before too long they will have to make a decision about the merger between themselves and Dairy Soul.

Perhaps it is because of his love of literature that he tries to use metaphors in everything he says to his co-workers.

Avoid Slang

Slang is nonstandard language made up of usually short-lived, expressive words and phrases. Though some slang words are eventually accepted as standard language, many are not. Because slang words often do come and go very quickly, they lend an informal tone and should therefore be avoided in most types of writing.

Not: 

My brother’s start-up company got owned last year.

That idea is really out there.

But:

My brother’s start-up company went out of business last year.

That idea seems pretty far-fetched.

Avoid Regional and Colloquial Expressions

Regional expressions are sayings used in a particular part of a country, and a colloquial expression is an expression not used in formal speech or writing. (A colloquial style is an informal or conversational, or even folksy, style.) Like slang, regional and colloquial expressions are also best avoided in most writing contexts because such expressions may not be understood by those outside of a particular group and because they lend an informal tone to one’s writing.

Not: 

After these meetings, the managers generally stand around just shooting the breeze.

Last year, our company had a rough trot.

But:

After these meetings, the managers generally stand around talking.

Last year, our company went through a period of misfortune.

Don’t Misuse Words

Though it is admirable to use new words and to work to expand your vocabulary, it is important to make sure that you are using a word correctly before including it in your writing, particularly if the writing will be read by large number of people or by influential people in your field.

A thesaurus, for example, is a very handy tool for finding new words, but make sure when you use it that you do so with care so that you don’t choose words that might cause embarrassment to you or misunderstanding or confusion for your readers.

Not: 

My manager said that after slipping on the ice, she laid prostate for several seconds catching her breath.

But:

My manager said that after slipping on the ice, she lay prostrate for several seconds catching her breath.

In the example sentence above, notice that both laid and prostate were initially used incorrectly. The correct terms are lay (past tense of lie) and prostrate (meaning to lie flat on the ground). Lay and lie are two of the most commonly confused words in English. For definitions of these and other commonly confused words, see the article entitled “Commonly Confused Words.”

Use That When Needed

For sentences that contain a that clause following the main clause, including the that often helps the meaning to be more clear by better showing how the sentence parts work together. In some cases, if that is left out, readers may misunderstand the meaning of the sentence.

Not: 

The manager was suggesting their termination was inevitable.

Each year the employees demand their wages be increased.

But:

The manager was suggesting that their termination was inevitable.

Each year the employees demand that their wages be increased.

Use Words with Appropriate Connotations

Many words have both denotations (literal or dictionary meanings) as well as connotations (emotional meanings). For example, the word sweat denotes a salty fluid secreted by sweat glands, but it connotes hard work and dedication. Because of this distinction, it is important to pay attention to both the denotation and the connotation of words. If the connotations of a word do not seem appropriate for the context of your writing, choose a different word. A good thesaurus can help you come up with a suitable synonym if one does not readily come to mind.

Not: 

After purchasing her treadmill and using it faithfully every day for a year, my sister became very skinny.

But:

After purchasing her treadmill and using it faithfully every day for a year, my sister became very slender.

Avoid Euphemisms

Euphemisms are milder or less negative words that are used in place of a harsh, blunt, or offensive word. Like jargon, they are often needlessly wordy, indirect, and sometimes even misleading. For this reason, most euphemisms should be replaced.

Not: 

Next week we are having a sale on all of our recently acquired preowned vehicles.

Our lives are somewhat different now because of our daughter’s special needs.

But:

Next week we are having a sale on all of our recently acquired used cars.

Our lives are somewhat different now because of our daughter’s blindness.

In some cases, however, euphemisms are appropriate. For example, we often use euphemisms when talking about death, bodily functions, or other sensitive topics. When euphemisms are used in these instances or in an honest effort to spare someone’s feelings, such as saying that someone is frugal rather than cheap, then they are sometimes preferred.

Use Figures of Speech with Care

A figure of speech is an expression that uses language in a nonliteral way. Figures of speech are most frequently used to compare two dissimilar things in order to reveal unexpected similarities between them. Two common devices for doing so are similes and metaphors. A simile compares two things using the word like or as, as in the expression cool as a cucumber. A metaphor makes a similar comparison, but without the use of like or as. For example, Their home is a museum is an example of a metaphor. Both kinds of figures of speech can be quite useful in helping readers to grasp an interesting or new idea or concept. It is important, however, not to mix metaphors—that is, don’t use a metaphor or simile that evokes two or more images of ideas that just don’t make sense together.

Not: 

We set up a foolproof plan to work out the holes in our production process.

While her husband was on leave, they tried to bridge the rough patches their separation was causing.

But:

We set up a foolproof plan to work out the kinks in our production process.

While her husband was on leave, they tried to bridge the gaps their separation was causing.

Avoid Being Too Formal or Too Informal

Part of analyzing the purpose of your writing and the needs of your anticipated audience is determining the tone you want to use. For most types of academic and business writing, a somewhat formal tone is best. An informal style, on the other hand, is best reserved for personal correspondence with friends and family or communication with other close associates. Once you have determined which style is appropriate for a particular document, be consistent; readers can be easily distracted or even confused by writing that switches between a formal and informal style.

Not: 

I heard you’re hiring a few new guys for your latest gig, and I thought I’d see about working there.

The party will commence at 7 p.m. We’ll be having barbequed burgers and hot dogs. Feel free to invite your parents, if you like. I would look forward to making their acquaintance then.

But:

One of your employees, Jon Daniels, told me that you are hiring a few new contractors for your latest project, and I would like to apply for a position.

The party will start at 7 p.m., and we’ll be having barbequed burgers and hot dogs. Feel free to invite your parents, if you like. I would enjoy meeting them.

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