How to Achieve Clarity in your Writing

Written by on May 8, 2012 in On Writing

One of the most valuable things a writer can learn about the craft of writing is clarity. Being straightforward and clear is a challenge for many writers, myself included. It is easy to think that your readers live inside your head with you and you don’t have state your ideas clearly and you can use flowery language and vague insinuations to make your point.

I have learned that being clear is a real art and a developed skill.It doesn’t matter if you are writing a letter, a recipe, a memo, a novel, an advertisement  or even poetry (which has turned ambiguity into an art form);  clarity is vital and creates the value in any written work. It also adds professionalism if you are on the job.

I have a list of five tips for achieving clarity in your writing.

1. Write as if your audience will be children.

If you prepare a rough draft of your work as though you are writing so that a child will understand, you will get the proper foundation. You can always go back and dress it up or change words so that they are more appropriate for the situation but if you begin by writing in the simplest of terms with the only goal being clear communication, you will have achieved clarity at the outset.

Or I can rewrite the above paragraph more clearly.

If you write your first draft so that a child can understand it you will have an excellent base. You can always go back and change words that don’t fit or add information that is necessary. But if you begin with the goal of simple and  easy to understand words you will have clear communication at the start.

Point made.

2. Clearly define your topic sentence.

Let’s say I want to write a book review about Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road.” There are plenty of themes and directions I could take in a review of the book. Some themes would include. The end of the world, depravity of human beings, hopelessness, fear, the unknown, adversity, innocence, hopefulness and more.

Let’s say I don’t want to exclude anything so I write a meandering five pages that leaves the reader confused. I included so much information that my writing, in an effort to capture everything, becomes convoluted. I have not defined my topic sentence.

Let’s say I realize my mistake and I choose the topic of fear and how fear drives certain people to do certain things, some good, some bad. I write a one full page review that examines this topic as it is presented in the book.


3. Use your topic as a guide.

It can be easy to get pulled away from your topic idea or sentence when writing. I find it helpful to use the topic as a guide for determining the angle I use in my writing. Here is a helpful analogy. Writing can be like photography. If you take a picture of the ocean at noon on a bright sunny day from your hotel balcony, (that is your angle) you will get a very different picture than if you take a photo of the ocean from the deck of cruise ship at sunset. Same ocean, different image, feeling, and ultimately different communication.

It is better to have one amazing photo of the ocean from one angle than ten different photos of the ocean from all different angles. Once you decide on  your topic, stay with it, build on it and use it to reinforce and strengthen your writing.

Less really is more.

4. Use shorter sentences.

It seems obvious but using shorter sentences definitely adds clarity. Longer sentences can lack focus. Shorter sentences are simpler. Try breaking up your longer sentences into two or three shorter ones. Notice if the writing improves. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Long sentences are not necessarily the result of intelligence or artistry. It takes great skill to write beautifully and simply. Besides, sometimes a lot of periods add emphasis.

Or longer sentences. . .

It seems obvious but using shorter sentences definitely adds clarity because longer sentences can lack focus while shorter sentences are simpler and by breaking up longer sentences into two or three shorter sentences you will notice that the writing often improves although sometimes this doesn’t work but most times it does. Long sentences are not necessarily the result of intelligence or artistry because it takes great skill to write beautifully and simply; besides sometimes a lot of periods adds emphasis. (Whew!)

The first of these two paragraph contains nine sentences. The second paragraph contains two. They are both exaggerated examples but it drives the point home.

Less is more. (Again.)

5. Why are you writing anyway?

This is a valuable question to ask yourself while caught up in the grip of ecstatic self expression. In addition to self expression, we write to communicate, to be understood, to help others understand, to enlighten, to entertain, to challenge, to thrill and countless other reasons.  But all of these reasons are linked to the reader understanding the writing. Don’t worry about impressing people or trying to prove your wit, cleverness or intelligence. Write to be understood and your words will take on a whole new meaning.

For you and for your readers.

Some of my favorite books on writing include

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

On Teaching and Writing Fiction by Wallace Stegner






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