Writing Clearly and Simply
Is it Possible to Write “Clearly and Simply?”
Writing clearly and simply can be one of the most difficult of all writing tasks. Clear and simple writing is essential to the understandability of web content. Unclear or confusing writing is an accessibility barrier to all readers but can be especially difficult for people with reading disorders or cognitive disabilities.
“My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”
“Unless one is a genius, it is best to aim at being intelligible.”
—Anthony Hope Hawkins
Language and cultural differences matter.
To complicate matters, the "rules" vary across languages, and even across cultures that share a language. Many cultures value verbal efficiency and directness; others may feel that this style is too blunt or even insulting.
This article offers general guidelines for writing clear and simple English, primarily from an American English perspective.
Cognitive abilities matter.
Not everyone reads or understands text content at the same level, even when presented clearly and simply. Reading disorders, memory disorders, attention deficit disorders, and other conditions which affect the brain's cognitive processes can compromise a person's ability to understand text. The guidelines presented below will improve readability for many, but not for all.
1. Organize your ideas into a logical outline—before and during the writing process.
To communicate a topic clearly, think about it clearly. The organization process is ongoing, starting before any words are written and continuing throughout the entire process. There is nothing wrong with reorganizing as you write. When you think you're finished, take the opportunity to analyze it one more time to see if the organization still makes sense to you. If it does, great! If not, try again.
Define headings to visually and structurally organize the content. These provide an easy way for users to examine the content structure and, if desired, jump directly to content of interest.
“If any man wishes to write in a clear style, let him first be clear in his thoughts.”
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“Writing comes more easily if you have something to say.”
2. Introduce, explain, summarize.
Introduce an overview of the main ideas, explain the ideas in the body text, and summarize or review the ideas at the end.
In a simplified format, here is a structural analysis of ideas for a paper about baldness:
- Introduction (Tell them what you're going to tell them)
- Not everyone appreciates baldness as they should. There are advantages to being bald.
- Body (Tell them)
- Bald people don't have to worry about the cost of haircuts. They can cut their own hair (what remains of it) with a razor or clippers.
- Bald people don't have to style their hair. They only must dry their head with a towel after showering and are then free to move on to other more relevant activities, like reading the comics, practicing yoga, or climbing trees.
- Even on windy days, bald people never get hair in their eyes or mouth, at least not their own hair, which makes windy days more bearable for most people who don't particularly like the taste of hair.
- Review and Conclusion (Tell them what you told them)
- Baldness allows for some under-appreciated conveniences in life, in terms of haircuts, styling, and windy days. You ought to consider going bald.
3. Stay on point.
The more you stick to your main point, the more likely people will be to remember it.
4. Make it interesting.
Capture your readers' attention by including relevant details that motivate them to continue reading.
“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.”
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
“What we want is a story that starts with an earthquake and builds to a climax.”
5. Write for your audience.
Writing for first-graders is different from writing for post-graduate scholars. In addition, consider the reader's areas of expertise, even if they have the same level of education or intelligence. The amount of explaining you need to do depends upon how familiar your reader is with the topic. Cultural and gender differences should also play a role in writing for a target audience.
6. Assume that your readers are intelligent, but do not assume that they know the subject matter as well as you.
A level of mastery of a topic is necessary in order to explain it simply. Explaining concepts is not insulting; it is helpful, if the explanations respect the reader. Some people with cognitive disabilities may need more explanation than others, but when you write for general audiences, assume a general level of intelligence.
The U. S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends an 8th grade reading level if targeting a broad audience, and a 12th grade reading level for an educated or specialized audience. Many popular news websites, such as NPR and BBC, are written at about this level. Professional resources such as the Journal of the American Medical Association are written at a slightly higher level, approximately 11th grade.
7. Write cohesive paragraphs constructed around a single major idea.
All ideas in a paragraph should relate to its main point. If possible, put the main idea in the first sentence.
The following paragraph presents an idea about teams. The first sentence clearly states the main idea of the paragraph. The other sentences support this main idea.
Obstacles are a continual fact of life for teams. They occur from the moment a potential team gathers until the team comes to an end. Obstacles also differ as much as the teams, performance challenges, organizational settings, and business contexts that produce them. The Burlington Northern Intermodal Team, for example, encountered weak support from management, policies against advertising, distrust of truckers, and mediocre talent in the intermodal department. It also faced bad weather, intense competition, and a poor economy when it had to prove its strategy with the two new hubs. Any of these obstacles could have derailed the team's progress and performance. None of them did. Indeed, working through the obstacles made the team stronger.
(From "The Wisdom of Teams" by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, HarperBusiness press 1994, page 149.)
8. Avoid slang and jargon.
Slang and jargon can be useful to people who understand it, but confusing to others.
🙁 Social theory jargon:
Critical theory seeks to problematize the hegemonic reification of oppressive stratified social constructs.
The above sentence accurately describes one aspect of the social movement known as critical theory, but it uses terms that are somewhat less common outside of critical theory, and which have specific meanings within that field. The example sentence may confuse people who are unfamiliar with critical theory.
9. Use familiar words and combinations of words.
Writers should strive to communicate with their readers, not impress readers by using uncommon or showy words.
Unfamiliar words (to many people):
The populous legion of impecunious vagrants congregated near the basilica.
More familiar words:
The large crowd of poor homeless people gathered near the old church.
10. Use active voice…
Passive voice weakens the action of a sentence by distancing the action from the subjects performing the action. Active voice links the subjects directly with the action.
- The food was eaten at the party by the guests.
- A good time was had by all.
- The result of building a highway through the farmland was increased profit-seeking by some property owners and the eventual loss of land adjacent to the highway to developers' commercial and residential construction projects.
- The guests ate the food at the party.
- All had a good time.
- Building a highway through farmland led some property owners to seek profits by selling land to developers, who built commercial and residential projects next to the highway.
10a. …but not necessarily always.
Sometimes the key information is in the object, not the subject. This can be especially true when reporting news. In these cases, where active voice may tend to bury the lede, you may prefer passive voice since it puts the key information first.
- Governor Rhodes called in the National Guard.
- Mark Chapman, a Beatles fan, shot John Lennon.
- Archaeologists in Mexico discovered an ancient Mayan palace.
- A sudden, violent thunderstorm in Dallas downed Delta Flight 191.
- The National Guard has been called in by Governor Rhodes.
- John Lennon was shot by Mark Chapman, a Beatles fan.
- An ancient Mayan palace has been discovered by a team of archaeologists in Mexico.
- Delta Flight 191 was downed by a sudden, violent thunderstorm in Dallas.
Use your judgment. If passive voice does a better job of emphasizing the main point, as in the examples above, then feel free to use it when necessary.
11. Use forceful verbs.
Writers often use forms of the verb "to be" (such as "is", "are", "was", or "were") where active verbs would be stronger. Over-use of "to be" tends to trigger passive voice by connecting two entities that are essentially equal. The phrase "A is B" essentially means "A equals B." The relationship between A and B is static. In contrast, other verbs—such as "to improve," "to clarify," "to modify," or "to destroy"—imply a dynamic relationship between A and B.
🙁 Weak verb ("is"):
One way to strengthen your writing is to use forceful verbs.
(A = B)
(One way to improve your writing = to use strong verbs)
The equal relationship between the two parts of the sentence implies no action.
🙂 Forceful verb ("strengthen"):
Forceful verbs strengthen your writing.
(A improves B)
The subject ("forceful verbs") performs the action of strengthening the object ("your writing").
Section 10a above illustrates an exception to the rule, in situations where passive voice is preferred and forms of "to be" are unavoidable.
12. Use parallel sentence construction.
Make sure that the sentence construction is consistent within itself.
🙁 Non-parallel construction:
His new sorting machine saves time, increases profitability, and worker satisfaction.
🙂 Parallel Construction:
His new sorting machine saves time, increases profitability, and promotes worker satisfaction.
One way to find out if the sentence contains parallel construction is to list each of the items one at a time in a complete sentence:
- His new sorting machine saves time.
- His new sorting machine increases profitability.
- His new sorting machine worker satisfaction.
The third sentence in this example obviously needs a verb to make the sentence complete and parallel with the previous sentences.
13. Use positive terms.
Emphasize the way things are, were, will be, or would be. To the extent possible, avoid the use of don't, didn't, and other words that structure a sentence from the perspective of the way things are not, were not, will not be, or would not be.
🙁 Negative terms:
- Do not get dirty.
- Don't forget to water the flowers.
- I don't remember where I was last night.
- Choir members are not supposed to sing in ways that don't blend with the rest of the choir.
🙂 Positive terms:
- Stay clean.
- Remember to water the flowers.
- I forget where I was last night.
- Choir members are supposed to sing in ways that blend with the rest of the choir.
14. Give direct instructions.
Direct instructions can increase comprehension and place more of a sense of responsibility on the reader.
🙁 Indirect instructions:
- Students should read chapter five.
- It is best to eat a healthy breakfast before leaving the house in the morning.
- It can be dangerous to attempt to walk on a tightrope stretched over a pit of hungry crocodiles, so this practice is highly discouraged.
🙂 Direct instructions:
- Read chapter five.
- Eat a healthy breakfast before leaving the house in the morning.
- Walking on a tightrope over a pit of hungry crocodiles is highly discouraged.
15. Use positive or single-negative phrasing.
Most readers find double or multiple negatives awkward, which can lead to confusion, or at least to slower comprehension.
🙁 Double negative:
- Don't forget to not open your mouth when you fall in a muddy puddle.
- I don't let them not help with the chores.
🙂 Single negative, or only positive phrase:
- Don't open your mouth when you fall in a muddy puddle.
- I don't let them avoid the chores.
16. Explain acronyms and abbreviations; avoid them if possible.
Unfamiliar acronyms and abbreviations mean nothing to readers. Expanding them helps readers learn their meaning. This is especially true the first time, or the first few times, an acronym or abbreviation is used.
🙁 Unexplained acronyms and abbreviations:
The teacher prepared IEPs for the LD children and had to comply with NCLB to meet AYP.
🙂 Explained acronyms:
The teacher prepared individualized education plans (IEPs) for the children with learning disabilities (LD), and had to comply with the regulations of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in order to meet Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements.
17. Check spelling.
Use an automated spell checker, but also proofread the document for correctly spelled words that are used incorrectly.
🙁 Incorrect spelling:
- I wanted to see hte sunset for myself.
🙁 Incorrect words spelled correctly:
- The state police successfully diffused the situation.
- There house is located on that street over their.
- I wouldn't of done that had I known what the consequences would be.
- The store's are all closed today.
18. Write short sentences.
Readers tend to lose the main point of long, run-on sentences. Help readers stay focused by creating shorter sentences.
“Good things, when short, are twice as good.”
🙁 Long, run-on sentence:
We all agreed that we ought to eat at the new Greek restaurant in town, then see a movie, and, before going home, we should stop at the grocery store to buy milk for breakfast, because we ran out of milk earlier in the day and cold cereal doesn't taste good without milk, especially not with orange juice, which gives cereal a tart, citrus flavor which is fine for drinking from a glass, but not so fine for eating with flakes of cereal.
🙂 Multiple shorter sentences:
We all agreed that we ought to eat at the new Greek restaurant in town, then see a movie.
Before going home, we should stop at the grocery store to buy milk for breakfast because we ran out of milk earlier in the day.
Cold cereal doesn't taste good without milk, especially not with orange juice.
Orange juice gives cereal a tart, citrus flavor which is fine for drinking from a glass, but not so fine for eating with flakes of cereal.
🙂 Better Yet:
We agreed to eat at the new Greek restaurant then see a movie. Before going home, we should stop to buy milk for breakfast because we ran out. Cereal doesn't taste good without milk, especially with orange juice. Orange juice gives cereal a tart flavor which is fine from a glass, but not on cereal.
19. Ensure that every word and paragraph is necessary.
“Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
—William Strunk, Jr.
🙁 Too wordy:
It is my opinion that the explanation that was given by the teacher was delivered in a way that was not brief enough to be interesting and was not understood by the class.
I think the class misunderstood the teacher's long, uninteresting explanation.
20. When you're finished, stop.
Say only what you need to say.
Additional Considerations for Users with Reading Disorders and Cognitive Disabilities
The guidelines above will help users with reading disorders or cognitive disabilities understand text. Nevertheless, these guidelines will be insufficient for some users, especially for those who read poorly, or who cannot read at all. Text content will always pose problems for these users. Here are some recommendations for targeting people with cognitive disabilities:
- Provide illustrations as alternatives or enhancements to the text. Do everything possible to clarify and simplify the text, then add illustrations.
- Reduce text to a bare minimum. Pages with a large amount of text can intimidate users with reading difficulties. For this audience, the less you say, the better.
- Use short paragraphs or lists. Short paragraphs or lists can be more approachable than large amounts of text.
- Be as literal as possible. Some people with cognitive disabilities have a hard time distinguishing between the literal meaning of ideas and implied meaning. Sarcasm and parody can confuse people, especially on the web.
How Can Writers Know if They Have Achieved Clarity and Simplicity?
There is no definitive, objective test for "clear and simple" writing. No matter how well writers think they have explained a concept, some readers may misunderstand.
Algorithms, such as the Gunning Fog Index, Flesch Reading Ease Index, and Flesch-Kincaid Index attempt to evaluate readability or grade level of text. Such algorithms are appealing because they are based on mathematical formulas and measures. Unfortunately, the emphasis of these tests on quantitative accuracy can mislead writers into thinking that clear and simple writing is a formulaic process. The algorithms themselves are somewhat questionable too, since they use such superficial criteria as the number of syllables, the number of words, the length of sentences, etc., all of which are indirect measures.
Microsoft Word can evaluate against the Flesch Reading Ease scale and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scale. Word also provides a percentage count of passive sentences (the lower the percentage the better).
To activate this feature in Word:
- Go to File > Options > Proofing.
- Under When correcting spelling and grammar in Word, make sure Mark grammar errors as you type is selected.
- Select Show readability statistics.
- Go to Review > Check Document.
- After correcting or "ignoring" all errors found in the document, the readability statistics will display in a dialog box.
The Hemingway App also provides readability scores and can help guide improvements.
Although readability tests are only a superficial measure of true readability, they can at least provide some basic feedback and provide a measure for comparison.
It is not easy to write clearly and simply, but it is important to try. Users, especially those with cognitive disabilities, are more likely to understand your writing if you take the time to organize your thoughts and write them in the clearest, simplest form possible while considering your audience.