How to write clearly
By Edward T. Thompson
Editor-in-Chief, Readers Digest
Mr. Thompson shares some of what he learned in nineteen years with
Readers Digest, a magazine famous for making complicated subjects
understandable to millions of readers.
© 1979 International Paper Co. Reprinted with permission.
If you are afraid to write, dont be. If you think
youve got to string together big fancy words and high-
flying phrases, forget it.
To write well, unless you aspire to be a professional
poet or novelist, you need only to get your ideas across
simply and clearly.
Its not easy. But it is easier than you might imagine.
There are only three basic requirements:
- First, you must want to write clearly. And I believe
you really do, if youve stayed this far with me.
- Second, you must be willing to work hard. Thinking
means work--and thats what it takes to do anything
- Third, you must know and follow some basic
If, while youre writing for clarity, some lovely,
dramatic or inspired phrases or sentences come to you,
fine. Put them in.
But then with cold, objective eyes and mind ask
yourself: Do they detract from clarity? If they do, grit
your teeth and cut the frills.
Follow some basic guidelines
I cant give you a complete list of dos and donts for
every writing problem youll ever face.
But I can give you some fundamental guidelines that
cover the most common problems.
Outline what you want to say
I know that sounds grade-schoolish. But you cant
write clearly until, before you start, you know where you
Ironically, thats even a problem in writing an outline
(i.e. knowing the ending before you begin.)
So try this method:
- On 3x5 cards, write--one point to a card--all the
points you need to make.
- Divide the cards into piles--one pile for each group of
points closely related to each other. (If you were
describing an automobile, youd put all the points about
mileage in one pile, all the points about safety in another,
and so on.)
- Arrange your piles of points in a sequence. Which are the
most important and should be given first or saved for last?
Which must you present before others in order to make the
- Now, within each pile, do the same thing--arrange the
points in logical, understandable order.
There you have your outline, needing only an
introduction and a conclusion.
This is a practical way to outline. Its also flexible. You
can add, delete or change the location of points easily.
Start where your readers are
How much do they know about the subject? Dont
write to a level higher than your readers knowledge of it.
CAUTION: Forget about that old--and
wrong--advice about writing to a 12-year-old mentality.
Thats insulting. But do remember that your prime
purpose is to explain something, not prove that youre
smarter than your readers.
Dont use words, expressions, phrases known only to
people with specific knowledge or interests.
Example: A scientist, using scientific jargon, wrote,
The biota exhibited a one hundred percent mortality
response. He could have written: All the fish died.
Use familiar combinations of words
A speech writer for President Franklyn D. Roosevelt
wrote, We are endeavoring to construct a more inclusive
society. F.D.R. changed it to, Were going to make a
country in which no one is left out.
CAUTION: By familiar combinations of words, I do
not mean incorrect grammar. That can be unclear.
Example: Johns father says he cant go out Friday. (Who
cant go out? John or his father?)
Use first-degree words
These words immediately bring an image to your
mind. Other words must be translated through the first-
degree word before you see the image. These are
second/third degree words.
First-degree words are usually the most precise
|First-degree words||Second/third degree words|
|face|| visage, countenance|
|stay||abide, remain, reside|
|book||volumn, tome, publication|
Stick to the point
Your outline--which was more work in the
beginning--now saves you work. Because now you can
ask about any sentence you write: Does it relate to a
point in the outline? If it doesnt, should I add it to the
outline? If not, Im getting off the track. Then, full
steam ahead--on the main line.
Be as brief as possible
Whatever you write,
shortening--condensing--almost always makes it
tighter, straighter, easier to read and understand.
Condensing, as Readers Digest does it, is in large
part artistry. But it involves techniques that anyone can
learn and use.
- Present your points in logical ABC order: Here again,
your outline should save you work because, if you did it
right, your points already stand in logical ABC order--A
makes B understandable, B makes C understandable and so
on. To write in a straight line is to say something clearly
in the fewest possible words.
- Dont waste words telling people what they already know:
Notice how we edited this: Have you ever wondered how
banks rate you as a credit risk? You know, of course, that
its some combination of facts about your income, your
job, and so on. But actually, Many banks have a scoring
- Cut out excess evidence and unnecessary anecdotes:
Usually, one fact or example (at most, two) will support a
point. More just belabor it. And while writing about
something may remind you of a good story, ask yourself:
Does it really help to tell the story, or does it slow me
(Many people think Readers Digest articles are
filled with anecdotes. Actually, we use them sparingly and
usually for one of two reasons: either the subject is so dry
it needs some humanity to give it life; or the subject is
so hard to grasp, it needs anecdotes to help readers
understand. If the subject is both lively and easy to grasp,
we move right along.)
- Look for the most common word wasters: windy phrases.
|Windy Phrase||Cut to|
|at the present time|| now|
|in the event of||if|
|in the majority of instances||usually|
- Look for passive verbs you can make active: Invariably,
this produces a shorter sentence. The cherry tree was
chopped down by George Washington. (Passive verb
and nine words.) George Washington chopped down the
cherry tree. (Active verb and seven words.)
- Look for positive/negative sections from which you can cut
the negative: See how we did it here: The answer does
not rest with carelessness or incompetence. It lies largely
in (is) having enough people to do the job.
- Finally, to write more clearly by saying it in fewer words:
when youve finished, stop
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