Clarity in Writing

If readers don’t understand what you write, you might as well have written nothing at all.

It’s never the idea but rather the execution.

It’s not what, but how.

Fantastic writing should contain new, interesting, and complex ideas. It should challenge readers and, hopefully, resonate with them. To be effective, this kind of writing must be crystal clear.

This post is dedicated to a few simple things you can do to make anything you write easier to understand.

Let’s start with an old favorite:

Tell them what you’re going to tell them

A good introduction maps out the logic of what follows, and in my experience, this strategy is powerful across all forms of writing.

Telling the reader what to expect will assist them in following your logic and linking together your ideas.

If readers know from the outset what you’re getting at, they’ll be able to look at each sentence you’ve written through the prism of your intended meaning. In doing so, they’ll better be able to see how each point you make relates to the big picture you’re painting.

Look this way

Using formatting to emphasize key points is a simple way to add clarity to your articles. That’s not to suggest readers will only only read text you’ve emphasized. Rather, bolding tells the reader “this is particularly important.”

Sub-headings perform a slightly different function when it comes to clarity. They help break your post down into a distinct and manageable sequence of ideas and concepts.

The newspapers do it

An interesting fact: most hard news stories in the papers follow a strict formula of one sentence = one paragraph.

This is good for readability, as it gives each sentence space to breathe. Writing that’s easy to read is always easier to understand.

That’s not the only reason paragraphs are important for clarity, though. They also help prevent distinct ideas from bleeding into each other.

On top of that, paragraph breaks give readers time and space to digest each point you make.

Complex words are lackadaisical lazy

Every complex word can be broken down into simpler ones.

By complex I’m referring to any word which might cause your readers to open a new tab in Chrome and point it to Dictionary.com. Clear communication should never require effort on the part of the reader. Looking up a word, or puzzling it out, is unnecessary effort.

You might even take this a step further. Could any words you’ve written be replaced by simpler ones, with the same meaning?

Simple, economical words are always easiest to understand, even if they disappoint your inner Pulitzer Prize Winner.

If you’ll allow me to use an analogy…

Plato made a set of complex philosophical ideas timeless and accessible by presenting them as a story of prisoners trapped in a cave. The result was his Allegory of the Cave.

Analogies, similes and metaphors work so well because they use an idea the reader already understands to help them comprehend one they don’t.


A final note: clarity in writing should be one of your main goals. You want readers to get it.

Got it?

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9 thoughts on “Clarity in Writing

  1. Don’t quite agree about the preference for simple words or rather the exclusion of complex ones. However when using complex words, they need to really fit, and the context should carefully shape the use of that specific word. The English language is so incredibly big, varied, rich and complex. That is its virtue and its dynamic. That said, it’s good to know how — or to learn how — to write in both simple and complex forms. Writing an idea in a variety of ways helps show you which way runs closest to the thought.

    I remember a long time ago — the first time I read one of Henry James’ novels (this was really a long, long time ago) how I had to look up so many of the words in the dictionary. But after a while a writer like that has taught you his vocabulary and it’s wonderful.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I was going to post the same thought (curse you! lol)…. I think the answer is in between… link to a definition or explain the complex word(s)…. if that is your thing. I am not about dumbing down my words…. and if I recall, central park in fall (sorry channeling ferris bueller there).. isn’t one of the points of this art of blogging to fly your own flag… detractors be damned … ?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Let me explain one thing: if you use fancy words on a daily basis, and that’s how you actually talk, then, yeah, write like that. That’s your voice.

        But for 99.9% of people, simple words is what they use on a day to day basis.

        It’s not about detractors, it’s about getting your point across. If no one understands what your writing is all about, you’re failing.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I disagree… I don’t believe that .1% of the people are that dumb. I think that is why the internet is breaking down walls. Do I think the majority of people like the simple? sure.. but I think there is more nerds out there than we can count which can allow the real artists to thrive in an environment of their choosing.

        I agree of course that if no one understands what you are writing about you are failing… it is a fine line.. I think you missed the grey area.. or perhaps that is not your point ?

        Like

      3. haha! very true, David. Also sometimes the more complex word is simply more precise for the particular thought. So, I see the goal of writing as being the process for making the thoughts (feelings, actions, etc) more clear and true.

        Like

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