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Fresh News: Fixing the flaws in the 10 principles of clear writing
Fixing the flaws in the 10 principles of clear writing
by Philip Yaffe
I recently did an Internet search for “clear writing” and frequently came up with the same list of “10 principles of clear writing”. Each one is a piece of very good advice; however the list has two faults.
First, I am viscerally suspicious of all 10-item lists. They seem contrived. It’s as if the writer decided that any self-respecting list should have 10 items, then set about inventing them to meet the challenge.
More importantly, these 10 principles of clear writing are not really principles at all, but rather tips and technique.
What’s the difference? Tips and techniques tell you what to do; principles tell you why you are doing it.
Understanding why you are doing something, i.e. the benefit you will gain, helps ensure that you will actually do it and do it consistently. Too often when we are told only what to do, we follow the instruction half-heartedly, inconsistently, or not at all.
For example, my last year at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I tutored writing to make a bit of much-needed cash. One day a first year student came to me with a note from a professor, saying: “Young lady, I advise you either to leave my class immediately or prepare to fail it.” I concluded that she was misapplying a fundamental writing principle, so I explained it to her and had her do a few simple exercises to be certain she understood it. By the end of term, her almost certain “F” had shot up to a gratifying “B”.
This was not an isolated case. When students were having writing difficulties, it was generally because they were: 1) unfamiliar with a fundamental principle, 2) inconsistently applying it, 3) improperly applying it, or 4) not applying it at all.
I am a marketing communication consultant, after having been a newspaper editor, a writer with The Wall Street Journal, and European marketing communication director for two major international companies. Over my 40 year career, I have been continually appalled by how poorly top business executives, academics, researchers, and other clearly intelligent people express themselves, both in writing and speaking.
Some years ago I tried to analyze this depressing phenomenon. As a result, I defined three key principles that underlie virtually every kind of expository (non-fiction) writing and speaking. To give them strength and substance, I cast them in the form of quasi-mathematical formula. As formula, these principles not only tell you what to do, they also tell you why you are doing it and how to go about it.
I would first like to briefly explain these three principles, then see how they coincide with lists of tips and techniques that masquerade as principles.
Most people accept that a good text should be “clear” and “concise”. There is a third principle that is seldom mentioned. A good text should also be “dense”.
Being clear is not a matter of personal appreciation. Do you find your text clear? You should; after all, you wrote it. But how can you be certain that it will be clear to others?
According to the clarity principle, to be clear you must do three things:
1. Emphasize what is of key importance.
2. De-emphasize what is of secondary importance.
3. Eliminate what is of no importance.
In short: Cl = EDE
If you follow the formula, before you start writing you must first determine what is of key importance, i.e. what are the key ideas you want your readers to take away from your text?
This is not always easy to do. It is far simpler to say that everything is of key importance, so you put in everything you have. However, unless you do the work of defining what you really want your readers to know, they won't do it for you. They will simply get lost in your text and either give up or come out the other end not knowing what they have read.
Next, as you write your text, you must be certain to de-emphasize what is of secondary importance. Why? Because if you really want your readers to recognize and retain the key ideas, then you don’t want them getting lost in the details. Details (information of secondary importance) explain and support the key ideas. They must never overwhelm them.
Finally, you must ruthless eliminate what is of no importance. Why? Because any information that adds nothing to explaining and supporting the key ideas will tend to obscure them, which is exactly the opposite of what you want.
According to the conciseness principle, your text should be as:
1. Long as necessary
2. Short as possible
In symbols: Co = LS
"As long as necessary" means covering all the key ideas you identified under “clarity”, and all the information of secondary importance needed to explain and support them. Note that nothing is said here about the number of words, because it is irrelevant. If it takes 500 words to be "as long as necessary", then 500 words must be used. If it takes 1500 words, then this is all right, too.
"As short as possible" means staying as close as you can to the minimum. Not because people prefer short texts; in the abstract the terms “long" and "short" have no meaning (so-called “weasel words”). The important point is: All words beyond the minimum tend to damage clarity. Subconsciously, readers will continually be trying to understand why those words are there, and will be continually failing because they serve no purpose.
Density is a less familiar concept than clarity and conciseness, but is equally important. According to the density principle, you text should contain:
1. Precise information
2. Logically linked
In other words: D = PL
Using precise information rather than wishy-washy weasel words in a text aids clarity. For example, if you say it is a “hot” day, what do you mean? One reader might interpret hot as 24° C while another might interpret is as 36° C. However, if you say the temperature outside is 28° C, there is no room for interpretation—or misinterpretation.
Using precise information also generates confidence, because it tells the reader that you really know what you are talking about. This helps to hold the reader’s attention and makes it easier to get your points across.
However, precise data (facts) by themselves are insufficient. To be meaningful, data must be organized to create “information”. There are two important tests to apply when converting data into information.
A. Relevance Is a particular piece of data really needed? As we have seen, unnecessary data damages clarity and ultimately confidence. Therefore, any data that do not either aid understanding or promote confidence should be rigorously eliminated.
B. Misconceptions The logical link between data must be made explicit to prevent the reader from coming to false conclusions. Example: A singular occurrence may be misinterpreted as part of a broad pattern; a general policy may be misinterpreted as applying only in specific circumstances, etc.
To ensure that a logical link is clear, place the two pieces of data as close to each other as possible, preferably right next to each other. When data are widely separated, their logical link is masked. If you don’t make the logical connection, it is unrealistic to expect readers will do so for themselves.
Keeping these true principles - clarity, conciseness, density - firmly in mind allows us to re-evaluate the oft-quoted ten “principles” of clear writing” (i.e. tips and techniques), thereby making them significantly more meaningful, and significantly more useful.
1. Keep sentences short This is usually interpreted to mean an average sentence length of 15 - 18 words. Not because readers can’t handle longer sentences. However, when length rises above this average, sentences are likely to be poorly constructed, thereby damaging clarity.
But remember, 15 - 18 words is an average. Don’t shun longer sentences. A well constructed long sentence is often clearer than two or more shorter ones. Why? Because the longer sentence betters shows the logical linkage among the various elements, which would be lost by splitting it apart.
2. Prefer the simple to the complex If the precise word is long, don’t hesitant to use it, because not using it would damage clarity. On the other hand, if a shorter word would do just as well, prefer it. Examples: “dog” rather than “canine”, "change" rather than "modification", "entrance” rather than “ingress”, etc.
3. Prefer the familiar word This is just a variation of point 2. If you have a choice between two words, use the one that most people are likely to recognize and use themselves. Examples: “insult” rather than “imprecate”, “daily” rather than “quotidian”
4. Avoid unnecessary words In other words, be concise.
5. Use active verbs In an individual sentence, whether you use an active or a passive verb is of little consequence. However, over an entire text it becomes very important. Active verbs tend to enhance clarity; conversely, too many passive verbs tend to damage it.
6. Write the way you speak This is a very useful technique, but don’t take it literally. When we speak, we generally use simpler vocabulary and sentence structures than when we write. Writing the way you speak is a good way to produce a first draft. However, when we speak, our sentence structures are often confused and our vocabulary imprecise. These faults must be rigorously corrected in the second, third or later drafts.
7. Use terms your reader can picture In other words, be dense. Use specifics; avoid weasel words. When making a general statement, be certain to support it with concrete data.
8. Tie in with your reader's experience We are again talking about density, i.e. using precise information. Be certain that the terminology you chose is compatible with your readers’ experience. If you need to use a word not likely to be familiar to your readers, define it the first time it appears. If it is really key, define it again later on in the text. Also be wary of words that look familiar but have a very different meaning in the context of your subject.
Example: “Insult” is medical jargon for an injury or trauma. However, talking about an “insult” to the heart without first explaining this unconventional meaning of the word is likely to leave your readers scratching their heads.
9. Make full use of variety This suggestion is almost superfluous. If you conscientiously apply the three writing principles of clarity, conciseness, and density, you will almost automatically introduce variety of sentence length and structure into your text.
Avoid introducing too much variety of vocabulary. Constantly changing terminology for the sake of variety damages clarity. If several words mean essential the same thing, pick one or two of them and shun the others. Introduce equivalent terms in such a way that the reader clearly understands they mean the same thing.
1. (Confusing) Manned space travel to Mars is once again being considered. The Red Planet has fascinated mankind for centuries. The “God of War” is the fourth planet from the sun - our own Earth is the third - and it is our closest celestial neighbor except for the moon.
2. (Clear) Manned space travel to Mars is once again being considered. Popularly known as the “Red Planet”, Mars has fascinated mankind for centuries. Being the forth planet from the sun (Earth is the third), it is our closest celestial neighbor except for the moon.
10. Write to express, not to impress The purpose of expository (non-fiction) writing is to inform or instruct, not to show off your literary prowess. The fact is, the better you write, the less people are likely to notice. And this is how it should be. The reader’s full attention should be on what you are saying, not how you are saying it.
Philip Yaffe is a former writer with The Wall Street Journal and international marketing communication consultant. He now teaches courses in persuasive communication in Brussels, Belgium. Because his clients use English as a second or even third language, his approach to writing and public speaking is somewhat different from other communication coaches. His new book The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional will be published in March 2010, and will be available from Amazon.com and other online booksellers. Contact: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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