A version of this essay was recently published in Research World.
My new book “Murder Your Darlings” isn’t a mystery thriller. It is a book about writing books — about 50 of them. Despite their differences, writing guides are consistent on how to make a text clear and comprehensible.
Here is the enduring wisdom, summarized in a dozen strategies.
You may wind up with thousands of readers, but begin in your head with one.
When you’re ready to sit at the keyboard and write, you may already know too much. In other words, you forgot that just a while ago you were a curious learner. Don’t write down to the audience, but imagine how you would begin to explain your topic to a single person sitting next to you on a barstool.
Create the illusion of conversation.
Writers talk about wanting to achieve an authentic voice. But in most cases, no one is speaking aloud. The text is coming off the page or screen. But you can create the illusion of someone speaking to another. The most powerful tool for achieving this is addressing the reader directly as “you.”
Slow down the pace of information, especially at points of complexity.
The great writing teacher Don Murray taught this lesson to countless writers: “Use shorter words, shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity.” Too often, the reader gets sprayed with long complicated sentences and just can’t keep up. Think of the period as a stop sign. The more stop signs, the slower the pace, which is good if you are trying to make something clear.
Either avoid jargon — or translate it.
All of us are multilingual, which is to say that we belong to lots of different language clubs. My grandfather was Italian. My grandmother was Jewish. I have a degree in English literature. I play in a rock band. I coached girls soccer. Each of those experiences has taught me to communicate in a different dialect. When I report on a technical subject, I have to learn a specialized language. But readers are out of the loop and will not understand jargon, unless I teach it to them.
Use as few numbers as will get the job done.
I learned this from Wall Street Journal writer and editor Bill Blundell. “My goal,” he told me, “is to write a WSJ story without a single number. If I can’t do that, then it is to write a story with only ONE really important number.” Never clot a bunch of numbers in a single paragraph; or worse, three paragraphs. Readers don’t learn that way.
Lift the heavy cargo out of the text and put it in a chart or graphic.
I learned this from the world’s best news designer, Mario Garcia. One way to handle numbers — or other technical information — is to deliver it in a visual way. Some things — like travel directions — are difficult to deliver in a text. A locator map may be better. But remember this: Just because it exists in a graphic does not mean it will be easy to understand. Test it out.
Reveal how the reader can use the information.
Imagine a story where a city is applying for a grant to build a plant to recycle sewage water. “They are going to do what?” asked the city editor. “Will we be drinking sewage water in this town?” The reporter set him straight: “No, Mike, you don’t drink it. But you can water your lawn with it. And firefighters can put out fires with it. And it will save taxpayers a lot of money, especially during droughts.”
Only quote people who can make things clearer than you can.
A common piece of writing advice is to “Get a good quote high in the story.” The key word there is not “high,” but “good.” If you are working on a tough story, you will be interviewing experts, so be careful. Experts have a way of showing off their expertise by using jargon. You don’t have to be impolite: “Can ya give it to me in plain English, Doc?” But you can repeat questions such as “How would that work?” “Can you give me another example?” “Can you please repeat that? I want to make sure I’ve got it right.”
Look for opportunities to tell stories — even in miniature.
Reports deliver information to readers. Stories create experiences. We have a word that describes a miniaturized story. It’s called an anecdote. You can tell one in a paragraph, maybe even in just a couple of sentences. “They banged on a garbage can in the dugout so the hitter knew he was getting a curveball.” You can experience that, even though I delivered it in a few words.
One human is more memorable than tons of data.
I remember a Wall Street Journal article that began with the story of a dead woman in a morgue. Her husband stood beside her, looking at the soot on her face, and the wound near her temple which was fatal. Why are we reading about her? Because she was the first woman known to have been killed in an underground mine disaster. So what? As more and more women entered jobs once limited to men, they got to share in the benefits and the dangers.
Maybe I should have titled this “The 12 secrets of clear writing.” When I use the word “secret” in a headline or title, the audience seems to pay closer attention. Why are women doing so much better in academic achievement in the last decade than men? What was the secret of the South Korean film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture? What is the best way for college graduates to recover from student debt? I am addicted to any story that includes the phrase: “Here’s how it works.”
Read your draft aloud.
I have taught these lessons to businesses, non-profits, labor unions, and governmental agencies, places, to quote one client “Where language goes to die.” I asked one editor, “Is there a reason why that paragraph has to be 417 words long?” That absence of white space created a dense, impenetrable block of type. Read it aloud, I suggested, and you will be able to hear the natural breaks.
Bonus: Think of subjects and verbs as conjoined twins.
The clearest sentences almost always keep subject and verb together near the beginning. When subjects and verbs in the main clause are separated, all kinds of mischief can occur.
Your job as a writer is not just to dump data. Your job is to take responsibility for what readers know and understand in the public interest. Now get to it.
Want to share these lessons with others?
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Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at Poynter. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @RoyPeterClark.