How to write clearly

By Edward T. Thompson
Editor-in-Chief, Reader’s Digest
Mr. Thompson shares some of what he learned in nineteen years with Reader’s 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, don’t be. If you think you’ve 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.

It’s 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 you’ve stayed this far with me.
  • Second, you must be willing to work hard. Thinking means work--and that’s what it takes to do anything well.
  • Third, you must know and follow some basic guidelines.

If, while you’re 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 can’t give you a complete list of “dos and don’ts” for every writing problem you’ll 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 can’t write clearly until, before you start, you know where you will stop.

Ironically, that’s even a problem in writing an outline (i.e. knowing the ending before you begin.)

So try this method:

  • On 3“x5” 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, you’d 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 others understandable?
  • 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. It’s 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? Don’t 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. That’s insulting. But do remember that your prime purpose is to explain something, not prove that you’re smarter than your readers.

Avoid jargon

Don’t 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, “We’re 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: John’s father says he can’t go out Friday. (Who can’t 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 words, too.

First-degree wordsSecond/third degree words
face visage, countenance
stayabide, remain, reside
bookvolumn, 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 doesn’t, should I add it to the outline? If not, I’m 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 Reader’s 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.
  • Don’t 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 it’s some combination of facts about your income, your job, and so on. But actually, Many banks have a scoring system....”
  • 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 down?”

    (Many people think Reader’s 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 PhraseCut to
    at the present time now
    in the event ofif
    in the majority of instancesusually

  • 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 you’ve finished, stop


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