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How To Write Clearly

TIP Sheet
HOW TO WRITE CLEARLY: USING PRECISE AND CONCISE LANGUAGE

A writer's job is to create meaning for readers. Expository writers in particular are responsible for clearly spelling out the relationships between ideas and for leading readers convincingly to a desired conclusion. In the business world that most students will enter, this reader-oriented, presentational writing will be in high demand. Even in college, when an instructor asks you to write 2,000 words, he means 2,000 good words. You must cut out wordiness and use precise language.

This TIP sheet offers two ways to move beyond simple grammatical correctness. It teaches you to streamline writing by using the following:

  • Precise language: A vocabulary of precise nouns and vivid verbs helps you create strong mental pictures and avoid wordiness.
  • Concise language: Using the fewest possible words without sacrificing meaning makes your writing more understandable. Especially avoid unnecessary use of the verb "to be" when it contributes to nominalizations and expletives.

Precise language
Never sacrifice clarity to novelty. This sometimes occurs when student writers work with a thesaurus in one hand, choosing substitutes from a list of approximately similar, though unfamiliar, words. "Visage" replaces "face," "endeavors" replaces "tries," "cogitation" replaces "thought," "subsequent to" replaces "after." Or, as a result of late-night brainstorming (or having read too many bad financial aid packets, perhaps?), "at the present time" replaces "now," "in the event of" replaces "if," and "in the majority of instances" replaces "usually."

For example, a speech writer for President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote the first sentence below; FDR himself revised it:

We are endeavoring to construct a more inclusive society.
We're going to make a country in which no one is left out.

Never sacrifice meaning to novelty. That is, never search for a synonym just to dress up an idea, and never use an unfamiliar word from the thesaurus to replace a perfectly good familiar word. Thesaurus words may be similar or related, yet not be identical or even equivalent in meaning. Unfamiliar words may carry the wrong connotation or be simply unsuitable for your audience. Learn a word's meaning and usage before using it.

For example, the second sentence below is not identical in meaning with the first (or indeed even comprehensible!), although the word substitutions come from a standard thesaurus:

In addition to studying Western culture, students should be required to study Asian, African, or other cultures. This expanded cultural study would foster understanding of the modern global community.

In addition to examination of Western enlightenment, a pupil ought to remain to apply one's mind to Oriental, African, or choice cultures. Such an enlarged edifying trance would guest of empathy of latter-day universal public.

Never sacrifice meaning to belonging. That is, avoid jargon, or words and expressions known only to people with specialized knowledge or interests. Even if readers know the jargon, it is more difficult to read than plain English and slows down comprehension. Check your writing once expressly to locate jargon, and cut out as much as you can. If technical words or expressions are unavoidable (and they sometimes are), define them the first time you use them and try sometimes to substitute a plainer word. The trick is to cut the verbiage without sacrificing meaning.

For example, contrast the two sentences below, the first written by a scientist using scientific jargon, the second revised into plain English:

The biota exhibited a one hundred percent mortality response.

All the fish died.

Choosing precise nouns makes it unnecessary to add layers of descriptive adjectives that lengthen sentences and comprehension time. (Your adjectives, anyway, will have greater impact if they are not overused.) Compare the following generic nouns on the left with the more connotative suggestions on the right:

youth juvenile, teenager, child, adolescent
woman lady, mistress, matron, femme fatale
house cabin, mansion, cottage, villa
group horde, clan, team, committee


Perhaps even more than nouns and adjectives, vivid verbs awaken strong images in readers' minds. Strong verbs do more than almost anything else to improve prose. Compare the following:

Lit up ignited
Leave behind abandon
Go back return
Get the audience involved involve the audience
Got to see that realized
Got better improved
Got there arrived
Put in installed, deposited
Put off postpone, delay
Put into action activate
Put in place arrange, place

 

Concise language
After college, when a job recruiter reads your resume, he or she may simply refuse to wade through excess verbiage. A wordy resume may be tossed. And a future supervisor will want to be able to comprehend your summary report rapidly and painlessly. Writing that is concise packs maximum meaning into the fewest possible words–think of how you would pack your suitcase for an extended tour of Europe. If you use precise language, you will probably find you are already using fewer words. However, if you examine how you use "to be" verbs–am, is, are, were, was, been–you may find even more that you can condense.

As much as possible, replace the verb "to be" with a stronger verb. "To be" is often part of a construction called an expletive, a filler expression like "there were," "it is," or "here are." The problem with expletives, besides their meaninglessness, is that they are wordy and their verbs are lackluster. The subject follows the verb, resulting in an indirect, roundabout expression (also see TIP Sheet "Active and Passive Voice"). To avoid expletives, lead with the subject or even choose a different subject and, if possible, substitute a vivid verb to make the sentence more straightforward and easier to understand:

There are problems with the lease.
The lease has problems.

There are several good reasons to delay making this decision.
We should delay making this decision for several reasons.

There is a natural desire among adolescents to experience freedom from authority.
Adolescents naturally crave freedom from authority.

Expletives often occur with nominalizations. Nominalizations are nouns created by adding an ending to a verb or an adjective: "specificity" from the verb "specify," for example, or "validity" from the adjective "valid." Writing that is overloaded with nominalizations (think government publications) is hard to understand, is almost always too wordy, and uses weaker verbs. Change the nominalizations back into verbs or adjectives if possible:

Using nominalizations:
There is a requirement that all students have an evaluation of their transcripts for placement purposes or to meet a prerequisite.

 

Changing nominalizations back into verbs:
The college requires that the admissions office evaluate all student transcripts for placement and prerequisites.

Even complex ideas–especially complex ideas–benefit from a careful effort to condense and to eliminate unnecessary words. By streamlining your writing you help your readers understand–and that is the point, after all.

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