Clarity in writing helps make what you write easy to read and understand.
You want to eliminate possible ambiguities or confusion to get your ideas across more clearly to your readers.
But it doesn’t mean simplifying so far that your writing lacks depth and substance. You want your writing to remain intelligent and informative.
Writing clearly is a skill, but it can be quite easy once you make it a priority.
How to improve your clarity in writing
You want your readers to understand and enjoy reading your content, ideas, or stories.
But sometimes, certain sentences, structures, and vocabulary can create confusion or even misunderstandings for readers.
You might think that using short sentences is the answer.
While it can help, the length of a sentence is not always a problem.
Here’s a very short sentence to illustrate.
Jeremy likes fish.
What does this sentence mean? Does he enjoy eating fish or keeping fish in his aquarium?
It’s easy to make it clearer.
Jeremy likes eating fish.
Let’s look at more ways you can quickly improve your writing clarity.
10 Suggestions for more precise writing with examples
Writing comes in so many forms, and a lot depends on your target reader.
Consider the difference between writing for young children and a technical text for professionals.
So yes, you need to grade your writing to suit your readers.
But at any level, making your writing easy to read and understand doesn’t mean dumbing it down.
The following ten points apply to all forms of writing and won’t alter the reading level.
All they do is make things much clearer and easier for your reader to understand.
1. Use the active voice
Yes, avoiding the passive voice is almost always number one on any list of writing tips.
That’s because it is one of the easiest ways to strengthen a piece of writing and give more useful information. Always use a clear subject and a strong verb whenever it’s possible.
The concert was canceled at the last minute, and it took weeks for ticket holders to receive a refund.
Who canceled the concert? The promoters, the artist or band, or local authorities.
Changing this example to the active voice makes it much clearer.
The band’s management canceled the concert at the last minute, and it took weeks for ticket holders to receive a refund.
Now your readers know exactly who did what.
2. Avoid complex sentences
You need a variety of short, medium, and long sentences in any writing.
But beware of overly complex sentences that can be difficult to understand.
They often have too many commas, unnecessary clauses, and relative pronouns.
Notwithstanding the fact that I followed the guidelines for making a complaint, my Human Resources department, which is well known for making things difficult for its employees, decided that my concern was extraneous and that I should, without delay, address my problem to my immediate superior, who could possibly act regarding my situation should they see fit.
A sentence like this is definitely one to edit and rewrite for better understanding.
Although I followed the guidelines, my Human Resources department told me to address my concern to my superior for a decision.
Don’t think that more words are a good idea. Word count rarely equates to clarity.
3. Reduce sticky sentences and glue words
Sticky sentences are ones that are overloaded with glue words.
It means you are using too many words to glue or stick elements of your sentence together.
The words are usually very common such as just, so, in, but, of, for, and some.
Here’s an example of a very sticky sentence.
Just when I sat down to write this, my head was so full of ideas that I seemed literally to get really confused, and then from that point, I struggled to get into the topic in any meaningful way and write with any purpose.
There are 44 words in the sentence, and 28 are filler or glue words. That’s around 64%, which is far too high.
Here’s the edited version.
When I started to write this, my head was full of ideas, but I became confused and struggled to stay on topic.
The sentence is now down to 23 words, with only 5, or 21% being glue words.
4. Correct dangling and misplaced modifiers
Of all the elements that can affect clarity in writing, these two are by far the biggest offenders.
A dangling modifier occurs when it’s not clear who the sentence is referring to or why.
When I was young, my father insisted on having piano lessons.
In the sentence above, it’s unclear whether the father insisted on lessons for himself or the young person.
To correct the problem, you need to clarify who had the lessons.
When I was young, my father insisted that I had piano lessons.
Sentences with a misplaced modifier can create similar confusion for readers.
When I took my seat on the train, I noticed a cream woman’s purse lodged in the armrest of my seat.
The misplaced modifier here is the adjective, cream. Is it describing the purse or a woman?
It’s unclear if the purse is cream or if it belonged to a cream woman.
The modifying adjective is misplaced and needs to be moved to specifically modify the purse.
When I took my seat on the train, I noticed a woman’s cream purse lodged in the armrest of my seat.
Always move a modifying adjective closer to the noun it is describing.
5. Rewrite the grammatical expletive
It’s always better to start a sentence with a real subject instead of there or it.
There were many reasons why I turned down the job offer.
All you need to do is look for the actual subject and move it to the beginning of the sentence.
I turned down the job offer for many reasons.
If you make it a habit, you can usually replace most instances of sentences starting with an unreal or undefined subject.
6. Avoid confusing words
If you need to look up a word in a dictionary, so will your readers.
When you look for synonyms to add variety to your writing, especially with an online thesaurus, be careful about your choices.
Writers should excogitate before selecting the most appropriate words to use in a sentence.
Writers should think carefully before selecting the most appropriate words to use in a sentence.
7. Use more precise vocabulary
When you use more words than are necessary, it can negatively affect the clarity of your writing.
You can often find a stronger verb or more concise vocabulary to explain your point.
The stock market index increased very rapidly yesterday to the new highest peak for the year.
The stock market index surged yesterday to its peak for the year.
Other common problems can occur when modifying weak verbs with adverbs. It’s always better if you can use one strong verb.
Simon ran very quickly to help the poor lady who had collapsed.
Simon dashed to help the poor lady who had collapsed.
When possible, always try to remove weak modifiers and unnecessary wordiness.
8. Always define acronyms
Without a doubt, undefined acronyms are one of the most annoying and frustrating points in unclear writing.
Even major newspapers are guilty of it.
It’s extremely irritating for a reader to have to investigate what an acronym stands for if it is not referenced in the first instance.
What is AMA?
It could stand for American Music Awards, Australian Medical Association, or Ask Me Anything.
Whenever you use an acronym, reference it on the first occurrence using the acronym and the full title.
There is a lot of expectation surrounding the annual AMA (American Music Awards) presentation ceremony.
You might think everyone knows what an acronym means, but that is not always the case.
Care for your readers and make your acronym use clear.
9. Replace unclear pronouns
When you use a pronoun, it needs to refer to one clear antecedent.
Rosanne is my best friend. She always makes me happy.
In the example, it is clear that the pronoun she is referring to Rosanne, which is the antecedent.
But in the following example, the antecedent is unclear.
The weather in Spain is warm, and the hotels are reasonably priced. This is why we chose it for our summer vacation. (Unclear)
Did they choose Spain for the weather or hotels?
We chose Spain for our summer vacation because the weather is warm and the hotels are reasonably priced. (Clear)
You could also use these instead because it is the plural form of this.
The weather in Spain is warm, and the hotels are reasonably priced. These are the reasons why we chose it for our summer vacation. (Clear)
10. Avoid clichés and idioms
Unless you have a very good reason, hackneyed expressions add little value.
On top of that, it’s easy to get fixed expressions wrong, which can confuse a reader.
Mixed metaphors are always a possibility.
We are so lucky because our baby sleeps like a lamb. (Confusing)
You can say as gentle as a lamb or sleeps like a baby. But neither would fit the sentence above.
We are so lucky because our baby sleeps so well. (Clear)
It’s better to say what you have to say in your own words.
The ten points in the list above can all help to improve the clarity of your writing.
But you certainly don’t need to over-simplify or write in short, staccato sentences.
All you need to do is remove or rewrite certain elements that may interfere with comprehension or reading ease.
When you proofread a new text, check for sentences that are possibly unclear or difficult to understand.
Better still, ask someone to read the text for you and ask, is it clear for you?
Related reading: Positive Writing Is Always Better Than The Negative