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12 Tips for Writing Clearly

BY Simcha Fisher

| Posted 8/4/11 at 7:00 AM

 

On Tuesday, I insisted that people learn how to write well.  Today, I’m offering some practical tips that I have found useful.  Most of these apply to less formal pieces, like blog posts, short articles, or even comments—anything where you’re trying to make a point.  If you’re working on a research project, though, you’re on your own.

APPROACHING THE TOPIC

1.  Make sure you know what the heck you’re talking about.  You don’t have to be an expert: often, the things that need to be said are the things that people already know, but have forgotten—or things they don’t realize that other people are thinking.  So it’s okay to be simple, as long as you know exactly what it is you want to say.

If you’re still hashing it out in your mind, be upfront about that, and ask questions of the reader.  Don’t pretend to be more sure than you actually are.

2.  Make it clear why your topic needs to be addressed.  You’ll look silly if you get all worked up clarifying something that no one was confused about.  If you are righting a wrong, introduce your piece by summing up the wrong, citing at least one example.  One easy trick is to literally ask a question, and then answer it.  Or start with a short anecdote which explains what started your train of thought.

3. Don’t resort to defensive writing.  Nobody wants to read about what you’re not saying.  Say what you do mean.  Say it as clearly and firmly as you can —and then let it go.  After a certain point, if people hear what you’re not saying, then it’s their problem, and not yours.  You don’t owe them a second essay restating your point.  Do your best, and move along.

4. Don’t be afraid of trivial ideas.  Don’t hold out for the obviously profound.  If you are an intelligent person, then an image, idea, or phrase rings your bell for a reason.  Go ahead and write about it—you may be onto something.

5.  Be honest.  If you’re afraid your idea isn’t holding up, your readers will notice, too, so don’t force it.  On the other hand, “I used to think so-and-so, but I’ve changed my mind—here’s why” essays are always interesting.

6. Have you noticed that you write about the same three ideas over and over and over again?  That’s okay.  The best writing comes from insatiable fascination with a particular theme, not from fleeting infatuations with passing ideas.

EDITING

1. Editing should make you sweat.  It’s okay to write down every last thing you can think of . . . on your first draft.  Often “covering the page” is the only way to figure out what you’re actually trying to say, and sometimes your main point doesn’t emerge until you’ve written around it for several hundred words.  But don’t leave it that way.  Even if a passage is brilliant, funny, and flows sweet and clear like Grade A honey—it may not belong in this piece.  Every word must work in service of your point, or else it’s gotta go.

Even if I’m delighted with what I wrote, I cut out about 10% just on principle.

2.  Read it out loud. This is the best way to root out dumb phrases, snootiness, babbling, repeated words, and pronoun trouble.  If it’s an important piece, ask someone else to read it, and be ready to accept criticism.

3. Often, an essay doesn’t sit well because the right elements are all there, but are out of order.  Try putting your last paragraph at the beginning, and see how that settles.  If I’m really muddled, I make an outline that describes what I’ve written.  Reducing it to bare bones often shows the flaws hiding in the verbiage.

4. Not sure if you have a unified idea?  Try coming up with a descriptive title for the finished piece.  If this is hard, then you may not have said anything, or tried to say too much.

5.  Clarity before fanciness.  It’s fun to write the occasional sentence that makes people go, “Whoa, let me read that again—it sounds cool, but I’m not quite sure what it means.”  But that must be the very rare exception.  Most of what you say should be plain as plain can be.  You’re supposed to be drawing attention to your ideas, not your fancy, fancy self.

6.  Remember the Five B’s:  Be Brief, Boy, Be Brief.  I love to read, but I’m lazy, I’m tired, I’m distracted, and I rarely read a piece that’s longer than 1,000 words.  Most of your readers are even lazier.  Try breaking up perfectly good paragraphs into mini-paragraphs, just to make them easier to swallow.  Cheap, but it works.

BONUS TIPS:

Try to make the sentence structure express emphasis, rather than resorting to italics.

Pretend exclamation points and ellipses cost you $65 per use.

If you find yourself using emoticons, chop your hands off.

I believe in splitting infinitives, writing incomplete and run-on sentences, and generally murdering the language from time to time, if it gives the writing more punch or better flow.  So sue me.