Write Clearly and Concisely

Do you often have to verbally explain something you’ve written? You may not be writing clearly and concisely enough. Use this growing knowledge resource to learn how.

What does writing clearly and concisely mean?
Writing clearly and concisely means choosing your words deliberately, constructing your sentences carefully, and using grammar properly. By writing clearly and concisely, you will get straight to your point in a way your audience can easily comprehend.

Why should I write clearly and concisely?
In order to succeed in your communication task, you need to keep your audience’s attention. Writing clearly and concisely is one way to capture and retain their interest. Rambling on, conversely, may lose your audience’s attention.

How do I write clearly and concisely?

Several techniques can help you learn to write clearly and concisely in order to motivate your audience to read and respond favorably to your communication.

Choose your words deliberately

The words you choose can either enhance or interfere with your meaning and your audience’s comprehension. Follow these guidelines to develop a strategy for choosing the most effective words for your communication task.

Use simple words

Paul Anderson, in his book Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach, points to studies that show users comprehend simple words more quickly, even when they’re familiar with a more elaborate counterpart [1].

This table shows some commonly-used elaborate words and their simple alternatives [1]:

Elaborate word Simple word
ascertain
commence
constitute
fabricate
initiate
terminate
transmit
utilize
find out
begin
make up
build
begin
end
send
use

 
This guideline doesn’t mean you should eliminate all elaborate terms.

You may be familiar with technical processes and their related terms. If your entire audience will understand technical terms, use them. If not, either substitute with simple terms instead, or if there are no substitutes, explain the meaning of the technical term using one of these methods [1]:

  • Use a synonym: “memory” instead of “RAM.”
  • Describe the term: “RAM allows your computer to run more quickly and efficiently.”
  • Compare the term with a common concept: “RAM is like having a large desk with numerous drawers for storage. You can quickly and efficiently access your files at a moment’s notice” [2].
  • Define the term: “RAM, or random access memory, is one type of computer data storage systems. It allows your computer to quickly and efficiently access files” [3].

Replace vague words with specific ones

Vague words tend to be abstract and can conceal your meaning. Specific words, on the other hand, precisely and shortly convey your meaning.

For instance, suppose you are describing a new product your company is developing:

  • Vague: The Acme Corporation is developing a new consumer device that allows users to communicate vocally in real time.
  • Specific: The Acme Corporation is developing a new cell phone.

 
Readers may not immediately understand what the first sentence describes. Is this a brand new kind of device? Or a device they’ve never heard of? The second sentence, on the other hand, says exactly what the product is, leaving little room for doubt.

Eliminate unnecessary words

Unnecessary words come in many forms. Like vague words, they can conceal instead of reveal your meaning [4].

  • Excessive detail
    • Before: I received and read the email you sent yesterday about the report you’re writing for the project. I agree it needs a thorough, close edit from someone familiar with your audience.
    • After: I received your email about the project report and agree it needs an expert edit.
  • Extra determiners and modifiers
    • Before: Basically, the first widget pretty much surpassed the second one in overall performance.
    • After: The first widget performed better than the second.
  • Repetitive words
    • Before: The engineer considered the second monitor an unneeded luxury.
    • After: The engineer considered the second monitor a luxury.
  • Redundant words
    • Before: The test revealed conduction activity that was peculiar in nature.
    • After: The test revealed peculiar conduction activity.

Replace multiple negatives with affirmatives

Multiple negatives require your readers to interpret your meaning. Affirmatives, instead, convey concise meaning that needs no interpretation.

  • Before: Your audience will not appreciate the details that lack relevance.
  • After: Your audience will appreciate relevant details.

Avoid noun strings

Noun strings can confuse readers, as they are difficult to understand.

  • Before: The Acme Corporation continues to work on the cell phone case configuration revision project.
  • After: The Acme Corporation is developing a redesigned cell phone case.

 
Sentences express and connect the meaning of your ideas. Follow these guidelines to write clear and concise sentences that your audience can comprehend quickly and easily.

Pay attention to sentence length

In his book, Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach, Paul Anderson recommends varying the lengths of sentences. Use short sentences to emphasize a point; use longer sentences to connect ideas [1]:

This report provides operational information about the electrical equipment the Acme Corporation recently installed at their headquarters in Los Angeles (long sentence). The equipment will increase energy efficiency by 25% (short sentence).

Use the known-new contract

Martha Kolln and Loretta Gray, in their book Rhetorical Grammar, define the known-new contract as a reader’s expectation “that a sentence will have both known, or old, information as well as new and that the known information will precede the new” [2].

This contract allows users to easily connect what they already know to the new information you’re offering them [6].

  • Before: Support higher data rates for non-voice communication (new information) with third-generation (3G) cell phone technology (known information).
  • After: Third-generation (3G) cell phone technology (known information) supports higher data rates for non-voice communications (new information).

Use the appropriate voice

In the active voice, the subject performs the action of the verb. The focus of an active sentence is the subject:

  • Gary (subject) threw (verb) the ball (object).

In the passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb. The focus of a passive sentence is the action:

  • The ball (object) was thrown (verb) by Gary (subject).

 
Each type of voice has its place in writing clearly and concisely. Use active voice by default; research shows readers comprehend it more quickly than passive voice [1]. But use passive voice when

  • the action is more important than the subject, such as when you’re describing research or testing you’ve done: The results generated from the test were telling.
  • the subject is unknown: Every year, hundreds of people are diagnosed with hearing problems caused by excessive cell phone use; or
  • you don’t want to identify the subject, such as instances in which identifying the subject would cause unnecessary embarrassment: The lights in the lab were left on for three nights in a row and the bulb burned out as a result.

 
However, don’t use passive voice to conceal serious responsibility:

  • Mistakes were made that delayed the testing for weeks.

 
Use active voice instead:

  • The team made mistakes that delayed the testing for weeks.

Use transitions

Transitions are words and phrases that indicate connections between sentences. You should use them at the beginning of sentences to connect ideas by [1]

  • time: before, after, during, while, until
  • space: above, below, inside
  • cause and effect: as a result, because, since
  • similarity: as, likewise, similarly
  • contrast: although, however, on the other hand

Monitor nominalizations

Nominalizations occur when a verb is used as a noun:

  • occur—occurrence,
  • evaluate—evaluation,
  • execute—execution.

 
Nominalizations work well as sentence transitions [5]:

  •  Electrical signals occur naturally between devices. These occurrences happen only when the device is turned on.

 
However, nominalizations should be avoided when they hide the action of a sentence:

  • Before: Employee achievement led to the creation of the Engineer of the Year award.
  • After: The Acme Corporation created the Engineer of the Year award to recognize employee achievement.

Avoid using forms of the verb “be”

Forms of the verb “be” (is, am, are, were, was) indicate a state of being rather than an action. They can weaken an active sentence  and, in some instances, may indicate passive voice. Use active verbs instead whenever possible.

  • Before: The report is waiting for your approval.
  • After: The report awaits your approval.

Reduce prepositional phrases

Prepositional phrases help establish relationships between people and things in a sentence:

  • Frank drove his car to work.
  • The lab closes at 7:00 pm.
  • Joy had to revise her presentation for the conference.

 
Unnecessary use of prepositional phrases interferes with the clarity of a sentence [7]:

  • Before: The opinion of the manager.
  • After: The manager’s opinion.
  • Before: It is a matter of the gravest importance to the health of anyone who uses a microwave and has a heart condition to avoid standing in front of the microwave while it is running.
  • After: Anyone with a heart condition should avoid standing in front of an operating microwave oven.

Revise your sentences using the paramedic method

While you may not use it for everything you write, the paramedic method, developed by Richard Lanham, a professor of English at the University of California, is a set of steps for revising sentences. When the situation is appropriate, use this popular method to make your writing clear and concise  (adapted from the Purdue Online Writing Lab [8]).

The first step is to concretely identify problems in your sentences:

  • Underline prepositions (of, about, to, in, across, etc.)
  • Circle forms of the verb “be” (is, am, are, were, was)
  • Put boxes around action words (verbs like test, result, change; as well as nominalizations like testing, resulting, changing).
  • Highlight the person or thing performing the action.
  • Bracket wind-up explanations.
  • Cross out redundancies.

 
The next step is to revise the problem areas you have identified:

  • Rewrite or delete unnecessary prepositional phrases
  • Replace forms of “be” with action verbs.
  • Put the action in the verb.
  • Put the person or thing performing the action into the subject.
  • Delete unnecessary wind-up explanations.
  • Eliminate redundancies.

 

References

[1]      P. V. Anderson, Technical Communication: A Reader-centered Approach. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007

[2]      J. Henriquez. 10 common user questions—and some analogies that help clear things up. TechRepublic. [Online]. Available: http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/10things/10-common-user-questions-and-some-analogies-that-help-clear-things-up/1261

[3]      Random access memory. Wikipedia. [Online]. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Random-access_memory

[4]      R. Weber and N. Hurm, Eliminating words. Purdue Online Writing Lab. [Online]. Available: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/572/02/

[5]      M. Kolln and L. Gray, Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2010.

[6]      C. Berry and A. Brizee. Improving sentence clarity. Purdue Online Writing Lab. [Online]. Available: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/600/01/

[7] Reduce unnecessary prepositional phrases. The Writer’s Handbook. [Online]. Available: http://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/CCS_prepphrases.html

[8] A. Brizee. Paramedic method: A lesson in writing concisely. Purdue Online Writing Lab. [Online]. Available: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/635/1/

Where can I find more information about writing clearly and concisely

The IEEE Professional Communication Society’s site provides you with basic guidance on writing clearly and concisely. Explore the following resources for more information.

How can I practice writing clearly and concisely?

The best practice you’ll get will be writing on a daily basis in the workplace. You can use these online exercises to practice writing clearly and concisely.