19

Clear and concise writing

Introduction

Whether you are writing a blog or an advertisement or any professional writing, your goal should be to communicate your message as clearly and directly as possible.  Your goal should not be to impress people. Anything that hinders your purpose of communicating clearly and instantly should be eliminated.

The internet has removed the fear of writing and made it more accessible.  However, good writers rewrite and revise.  The internet has made it easy for people to write what is on their mind without checking and rewriting.

In the past, a writer would have a wastepaper basket next to their typewriter.  The basket might be full before the writer is happy with the final draft.  Computers have made it easier for excellent writers to revise their content, cutting, pasting, deleting without wasting paper. The opposite is true for in-experienced writers who find computers so convenient that they do not check and revise their work. Bad writers have become more verbose because computers have made writing so accessible.

Writing blogs or Posts on a website

Most websites that I review for comments are easy to read and well written. It is a pleasure to read well written and engaging content.

Sometimes I will read a blog that is extremely hard to read. I would read every sentence several times to try to figure out what is being said. Reading each sentence is like walking over broken glass.

Why are some blogs a pleasure and others painful to read?

One reason is sentence structure. Long and complicated sentences become challenging to read and comprehend. Sentences can be simplified by splitting a long sentence into smaller sentences with one point being made per sentence. Short sentences can be challenging to read, especially where the subject of the sentence is not clear.  Sentences need a subject and a verb to be meaningful.

Another reason is the lack of or poor punctuation. Punctuation can completely change the meaning of a sentence making it very confusing for the reader.

Another reason is the use of passive voice. Passive voice is where the subject of a sentence undergoes the action of a verb. The passive voice weakens a sentence and should be avoided.

Sentences that do not have subject-verb agreement are hard to read — also, confusing use of pronouns. For example, for paragraphs in the first person, the whole section needs to be in the first person.

Why is grammar so essential in writing?

If it is hard to read, then people will not bother. You have about four seconds to captivate the reader with the title and a few words. Then 30 seconds to engage them fully in well-written content.

Avoid meta-discourse

Meta-discourse is writing about what you are going to say in the sentence.  Meta-discourse is extraneous, unnecessary, and insulting to the reader.

Examples are:

  • ‘I just want to say that …’,
  • ‘Then I will show you …’
  • ‘I would like to point out….’

Examples of sentences with meta-discourse are:

‘I would like to take this opportunity to point out that too many people use meta-discourse.’

‘I would just like to point out that in my opinion, people should not use meta-discourse.’

Don’t tell people what you are about to say, say it. Removing meta-discourse increases readability and gets the point across more directly and succinctly.

Do not use unnecessary words

Do not use more words than you need to get the point across.   Get your point across without elaboration.  Words and phrases you should avoid are:

  • Really
  • Things/Stuff
  • I think
  • I believe

Examples of unnecessary words:

‘Using redundant words is really unnecessary.’ The word ‘really‘ is unprofessional and makes the sentence more difficult to understand. A better sentence is ‘Using redundant words is unnecessary.’

The words ‘things’ or ‘stuff.’

Avoid making the reader guess what you are referring to with the word ‘things.’

Instead of saying ‘many things,’ you should specifically refer to the subject.

The words ‘I think,’ ‘I feel,’ ‘I believe.’

Telling the reader what you think, believe, or feel, cheapens the sentence.  In many cases, people would stop reading.  Whatever you write down is your opinion, words like ‘I think’  become redundant. People are not interested in what you think, believe, or feel.  What you are writing is you think so why insult the reader by telling them what you think.

Avoid using passive voice

A passive voice is changing the sentence subject to the object of the verb.

For example: ‘The bread was brought by Andrew.’

Change the word order to ‘Subject-verb-object’ and remove the word ‘was.’

The sentence is using an active voice. ‘Andrew brought the bread.’ The word order is ‘subject (Andrew) , verb (brought), object (bread).

The exception for using passive voice is when you do not know, or you want to avoid mentioning the subject.

An example of the acceptable use of passive voice is: ‘It is said that active voice is better than passive voice in writing.’  You do not know the origin of a quote. The word ‘is’ is acceptable in this case.

Do not use fancy words

Some people like to show off by using pretentious words.  They think that they will impress the reader, however, most readers are not impressed by the author showing off their vocabulary skills. Pompous words make writing difficult to read and the reader will probably stop reading.  If the reader is a foreigner, then they will probably not understand the word and may have to refer to a dictionary.

Examples are:

  • ‘Meticulous,’ a better word might be ‘precise,’
  • ‘Inexorable,’ a better word might be ‘determined,’
  • ‘Utilize’, a better word is ‘use’,
  • ‘Comprehend,’ a better word is ‘understand.’

Do not overload sentences

Overloaded sentences are too long and hard to read.  An example is: ‘Cancer in rats is when the cells metastasize which may be caused by the overexposure to radiation.’

This sentence should be broken up into two sentences to simplify the meaning: ‘Cancer in rats is when cells metastasize.  This cancer may be caused by overexposure to radiation.’

Avoid redundancy

Redundant words repeat the point without adding meaning.

Examples are:

  • ‘She screamed loudly.’   Screaming is loud, so you do not need to use the word ‘loudly.’
  • Your own personal baseball cap’.  If you own it, then it is personal, you do not need to use the word ‘personal.’

Avoid adverbs

Rather than use an adverb, use a more descriptive verb.

Examples of substituting the word ‘very’ are,

Instead of saying:

  • ‘It is very hot,’ say ‘It is sweltering.’
  • ‘I find it very hard to find’ say ‘I find it difficult to find.’
  • ‘It is very big,’ say ‘It is huge’ or ‘It is massive.’
  • ‘I am very hungry,’ say ‘I am starving.’

Avoid using the word ‘good.’

‘Good’ is not descriptive, unspecific, and neutral.  Choose a word that is relevant to the topic.

Examples of words to use rather than ‘good’ are;

  • ‘That meal was delicious’ instead of ‘The food is good.’
  • ‘The answer is correct’ instead of ‘That is a good answer.’
  • ‘Hanoi is an exciting city’ instead of ‘Hanoi is a good city.’

Avoid informal sentence starts

Do not start a sentence with “Also,” “And,” “So,” etc.

Examples of bad sentences

  • “And the experts were in agreement about sentence structure.”
  • “So it can be concluded that the sentences should be concise.”
  • “Also, the participants were in agreement about sentence structure.”

Examples of better sentences

  • “The experts agreed on sentence structure.”
  • “Therefore, it can be concluded that sentences should be concise.”
  • “Moreover, the participants agreed on sentence structure.”

Avoid using confusing language

Sometimes language is deliberately used to confuse the reader. An example of political rhetoric that is intentionally confusing is the phrase, ‘collateral damage.’ Why don’t they say ‘civilian casualties’?

Another example: when a company closes a factory and announces ‘volume-related production-schedule adjustment.’ The language is deliberately confusing and changes the focus away from job losses.

My point is that language can be used to clarify or confuse. The goal of writing should be ‘to clarify.’ The purpose of political and corporate speeches is often ‘to confuse.’

The use of passive voice is also used to confuse the reader. Words that make a sentence passive are; using ‘were,’ ‘was,’ ‘because’ etc… before a verb.

The following sentence is an example of political speak clouding the issue with passive voice;

‘Disruption was encountered when a device impacted with the ground prematurely.’

What they should say is;

‘An airforce missile crashed killing civilians.’

A good rule is: Can you say the sentence without taking a breath?

Conclusion

Clear and concise writing will engage the reader.

Incoherent and overly complicated writing will dis-engage the reader, and they most probably will not bother to read your article.

Remember these important points.

  • Avoid Meta-discourse – telling the reader what you are going to say
  • Do not use unnecessary words – words like, ‘really’ and ‘I think.’
  • Use the proper word order and avoid using words ‘Was, is, are, am’ – use the word order ‘Subject-verb-object’ where possible and avoid passive voice
  • Do not use pretentious words – do not punish the reader by making them refer to a dictionary.’
  • Do not overload sentences – break sentences to make a single point

Things to avoid:

  • Redundant words – like ‘screamed loudly.’  In this example remove the word loudly
  • Passive voice
  • Adverbs – An example is ‘very.’  Instead of ‘very’ use a more descriptive adjective
  • Using weak words like ‘good.’  Instead, use a descriptive adjective
  • Informal sentence starts
  • Using confusing language

When writing, for whom do you write? Do you write for your audience? There will always be people who don’t like your writing style. Do you try to please everyone? You can’t please everyone. The person who must be happy about your writing style is you! Your job is well by cutting out unnecessary words and improving readability. Writing is a craft; you don’t want to lose your audience through sloppy craftsmanship.

Grammarly is an online grammar checker and proofreader that should be in the toolkit of every serious writer. 

On Writing Well by William Zinsser has been praised for its sound advice, its clarity and the warmth of its style. It is a book for everybody who wants to learn how to write or who needs to do some writing to get through the day, as almost everybody does in the age of e-mail and the Internet.

Please leave a comment in the section below.  I will reply to all relevant comments.

Aaron Skudder

19 Comments

  1. Aaron
    As always, your article is exceptionally well written. I reviewed my writing after reading this article and the number of errors I’ve made is incredible. Thanks for sharing this excellent advise.
    Joshi
    PS: I’m reading this comment for the 10th time hoping I’ve not made any errors you mentioned 🙂

    • Thanks Joshi. I am updating the content regularly.
      The article is not finished. Please check again later for more helpful tips on writing.

  2. Great tips. You know English isn’t my first language so sometimes I repeat my sentences in different ways and not realize it until I go and edit them. When I write now I use simple terms so that my reader can understand what I am talking about.

    I keep it simple just like you mentioned in your article. Thank you for sharing your tips with me.

    • I am glad to be helpful to you Kelyee. I wish you success with your onlie writing.

  3. Hi Aaron, a great post on the subject of writing. I will take on board what you say and use it when I am writing my own posts.
    Thanks for the information,
    Frank

    • Hi Frank
      Thank you for your kind comment. I like to help people to improve their online content.
      I would be grateful if you have any ways that I could improve the post.

  4. Hi Aaron,
    This is excellent content and something that many writers starting out need to know. Please keep providing these informative posts.

    • Thanks for the feedback Matt.
      I have provided basic information. The articles are not yet complete. Please check later for updated information on writing and grammar.

  5. I love your post, as a non-English person, it is really useful to find a place where you can get tips and suggestions regarding the way we express ourselves. As I was reading it I realize so many times I used the word stuff or things and even I believe or I think, and yous post has been a true lesson on what I should and shouldn’t do. Thank you so much, I hope to be able to apply all your teachings and improve the way I express myself

    • Hi Barbara.

      The blog is half complete.  I have a lot more to add about writing.  Please check in later for updates

      regards

      Aaron

  6. Hi Aaron, this is amazingly simple and straightforward. At first, I thought I was doing good until I made a decision to review my posts after reading this and I couldn’t believe how erroneous they are. Just full of simple errors that I could have  omitted had it been I had read this post earlier. I just decided to chip in a comment before returning to re-editing my articles. This is very helpful. Thanks

    • Good writers review their content and remove unnecessary words.  Please check in later for updates to my blogs.

      Kind regards

      Aaron

  7. It’s like taking a trip back to my academic days of lectures and discussion with our english teacher. You have effectively taught the do’s and dont’s in writing by giving clear examples per item. I admit that I am not really good when it comes to content writing. This could help me a lot to be reminded of how I should make my content more professional and trust worthy for the readers. While it me be okay for writers to express their thought in a personal way, I still believe that it should be delivered in a seamless manner because it’s one of the aspects in how the audience will take you for. 

    Thanks for the quick lesson. It’s a great help to avoid grammar mistakes in creating an article. I hope you can give more grammar lessons to improve our writing skills. 

    • Hi MissusB

      Thanks for your comments.  I have an article on grammar.  Please review the grammar article as well.  I am constantly updating the content.

  8. Hi, your review about On writing Well is very useful for writers and i really appreciate your observation to help people understand that the goal of any writer is to have the ability to communicate clearly as possible, personally I do one mistake that I derived correction from your post by avoiding being redundace when writing so that my reader won’t have any task of consulting the dictionary again, knowledge is power I will also be needing on writing well the price is affordable.

    • Hi Samuel

      Thanks for your comments.  I am updating the articles often.  Please check in later for updates

      • Hi Aaron,
        It is true that the internet has removed the fear of writing and made it more accessible. Many universities and graduated from college still have a problem with their English writing. This article can help to correct the unnoticed words, grammar, spelling, and correct writing sentences. I enjoy reading your posts.

        Thank you.,
        Edilberto

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  10. An excellent post. I learned a lot from him. Especially since I am not an English speaker. My daughter had a teacher, a man. To tell the children to start sentences with “So”, he told them: think after “So” follows “you’re a fool” lol. Thanks for posting. I’ll review all my posts in time.

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