The Writer's Workbench: Prefer the Simple

Clear writing starts with a sense of purpose and a determination to inform.

Too often, writers render complicated ideas with complicated prose, producing sentences such as this one, from an editorial about state government:

To avert the all-too-common enactment of requirements without regard for their local cost and tax impact, however, the commission recommends that statewide interest should be clearly identified on any proposed mandates, and that state should partially reimburse local government for some state-imposed mandates and fully for those involving employee compensation, working conditions and pensions.

Writing coach Donald Murray says readers benefit from shorter words and simpler sentences at the points of greatest complexity. What would happen if readers encountered this translation of the editorial?

The state of New York often passes laws telling local governments what to do. These laws have a name. They are called "state mandates." On many occasions, these laws improve life for everyone in the state. But they come with a cost. Too often, the state doesn't consider the cost to local government or how much money taxpayers will have to shell out. So we have an idea. The state should pay back local governments for some of these so-called "mandates."

You cannot make something clear until the difficult subject is clear in your head. That requires the hard work of reporting, research and critical thinking.  Then, and only then, can you reach into the writer's toolbox, ready to explain to readers, "Here's how it works."

Taken from The Writer's Workbench: 50 Tools You Can Use, a self-directed course by Roy Peter Clark at Poynter NewsU.

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    Vicki Krueger

    Vicki Krueger has worked with The Poynter Institute for more than 20 years in roles from editor to director of interactive learning and her current position as marketing communications manager.


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