18th Jul 2008

Rewriting for greater clarity

By Jefferson Flanders

When you have finished the initial draft of your essay or paper or report, reviewed your writing for logic and made any necessary structural adjustments, then it’s time for rewrite for clarity.

While the focus in this rewriting is on the microcosm of writing (word choice, word meaning, phrase choice, sentence construction, sentence length), the clear writer remains alert to the macrocosm, as well, stepping back and making revisions in the structure of the work when called for.

Rewriting for clarity focuses on choosing the most precise words and phrases, those that most clearly communicate meaning. What might confuse or mislead the reader? What terms or concepts need better explanations? Any writer striving for clarity would be well served to adopt the approach taken by the Wall Street Journal in providing clear-language definitions of complex business and financial terminology. The Journal editors look to make the newspaper’s articles comprehensible to even casual readers who may not follow business and economic news with any frequency.

Rewriting also involves eliminating or altering any ambiguity or vagueness in your writing at the phrase or sentence level. Clear writers tighten their prose throughout the rewriting process so they can communicate as much as possible in the fewest words needed. The goal is simple, direct prose that is clear to the reader. These four general principles can act as a guide:

  • Rewrite to emphasize your main ideas. Make sure key sentences start with the main, independent clause, since that will include the most important information. Lawyers are often guilty of beginning a sentence with a string of dependent clauses and postponing the independent clause until later—not surprising, legal documents can be very difficult to decipher. Whatever material is irrelevant or tangential should be cut. Don’t let it distract from your central message. Be as concise as possible without losing meaning. Your readers will appreciate the economy.
  • Favor the specific over the general, the direct over the complex, the concrete over the abstract. Even the most complicated ideas can be explained in relatively simple terms: look no further than science writers like John McPhee or Gina Kolata for proof that complexity can be distilled and explained. If you are going to make general pronouncements, be sure to back them up with evidence or examples.
  • Eliminate vague and ambiguous words and phrases. Start with jargon and inflated vocabulary, because these take up space without benefiting the reader. In business writing, recognize that the jargon of the board room and management consultant may be comforting in their familiarity, but they often obscure meaning. Yes, you may have to use some of the jargon of your industry, but keep it to a minimum.

    The same holds true for political writing, where as George Orwell famously noted in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” euphemisms and what he called “ready-made phrases,” are often employed to obscure, and blur, what is really happening. The best way to avoid this is to rely on simple and direct language, rather than on slogans or catch-phrases (“Leadership for the future! Moving our country forward!”).

  • Put yourself in the reader’s chair for a final read-through of your writing. What might be confusing? What isn’t defined or explained? Which sentences are too long (20 words is a good average sentence length)? I find reading out loud to be helpful in this final step—hearing the words helps me catch the padded phrase or vague adjective. I’m always on the lookout for Latinates (longer words drawn from Latin that often end in -zation, or -tion, or –ize) and try to substitute the Anglo-Saxon alternative instead (“use” for “utilization”; “built” rather than “constructed”; “said” rather than “communicated”).

Rewriting for greater clarity has value only when it helps the reader. Tight, direct prose is easier to understand and follow. The reader shouldn’t have to read an article, story, report, or essay more than once to comprehend it. Writers often tinker with their prose for other reasons—to add color or storytelling detail, to insure a cohesive style—but readers benefit the most when their goal is clarity.

Jefferson Flanders is an author, educator and independent journalist. He blogs on issues of the day at Neither Red nor Blue.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

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