Saturday, March 31, 2012

Clear, Concise, Powerful Nonfiction Writing


by Jodie Renner, editor & author,

"Are you excavating a subterranean channel?" asked the scholar. "No sir," replied the farmer. "I am only digging a ditch." - Anon

Today’s post is mainly aimed at nonfiction writers, for a change. Have you ever read a legal document that was incomprehensible to you? Sometimes even magazine articles seem to be far more stiff and convoluted than they need to be.

Readers today are deluged with documents to read and information to assimilate. They don't want to have to wade through a thick pile of verbiage, long, complicated sentences, and unnecessarily fancy words to get the info they're looking for. They want you to state your points clearly and succinctly (with maybe even a touch of humor), so they can get on to the next chapter, document or article.

Language is all about communication; and as such, written language should be easily understood by most of the population, or at least by everyone in your target readership. If you’re sending your average reader to the dictionary more than once or twice in your article, or if they have to stop and re-read a sentence because it’s way too long and complex, you’re not communicating in a clear, direct way, and you’re likely to turn off your readers. Or, worse, you’ll just come across as pedantic and pompous.

According to Wikipedia, “Plain language, sometimes called simple language or clear language, is lucid, succinct writing designed to ensure the reader understands as quickly and completely as possible. Plain language avoids complications created by verbose, convoluted writing common in technical, legal, and other fields.”

Dr. Robert Eagleson defines plain language as “...clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary. It is language that avoids obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted construction. It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of...language.”

Here are some tips for communicating clearly and effectively in your writing:

1. Avoid unnecessarily long sentences and excess wordiness.

Excess or elaborate words make your writing weaker. When tempted to use a wordy phrase, choose a concise alternative instead. As Robert W. Harris says, “Concise sentences have a force that wordy sentences don’t have. Extraneous words merely take up space and dilute the impact of the idea being expressed.”

Harris gives the following examples in his book, When Good People Write Bad Sentences:
Wordy: “Consuming excessive calories at breakfast, lunch and dinner can lead to an increase in blood pressure.”

Concise: “Overeating at meals can increase blood pressure.”

Wordy: “Owing to the fact that my car is not the most reliable of machines, I often show up for appointments after their scheduled commencement times.”

Concise: “Because my car is unreliable, I’m often late for appointments.”

Government writing in particular, is often too wordy. Here are some examples from of excess words in government writing and plain alternatives:

Original: "At the present time, the FAA in accordance with new regulations will on a monthly basis conduct random security checks in the event that there is a terrorist alert."

Revised: "The FAA under new regulations will conduct monthly random security checks if there is a terrorist alert."

Some examples of wordy phrases to avoid, and straightforward, clear alternatives:

Wordy phrases ----- Plain Alternatives
as a consequence of -----because
in the vicinity of ---------near
on a regular basis ------- regularly
as a means of ------------ to
as prescribed by --------- in, under
at a later date ----------- later
at the present time ----- now, currently
despite the fact that ----- despite            
for the purpose of ------- to, for
in accordance with ------ under
in the event that ---------- if
in the not-too-distant future - soon
has the appearance of --- looks like
on a monthly basis ------- monthly
owing to the fact that ---- because
pertaining to --------------- of, about
should it appear that ----- if
with regard to ------------ about
drew to a close ----------- ended
on an annual basis ------- annually

Notice that the extra words in the first column above don’t help the meaning or add anything of significance. The wordy phrases are no more serious, compelling, or informative than their concise alternatives. In fact, extra words drain the life out of your work. The fewer words used to express an idea, the more punch it has.

2. Use active voice instead of passive voice.

Passive: The tests were graded by the teacher. The ball was kicked by Paul. The motion was passed by Senate.

Active: The teacher graded the tests. Paul kicked the ball. Senate passed the motion.

Because the active voice emphasizes the doer of an action, it is usually briefer, clearer, and more emphatic than the passive voice. Whenever possible, use active voice in your writings.

3. Avoid redundancies and unnecessary qualifiers.

It’s a mistake to think that in order to make an idea clear, you need to state it in several different ways. Using different words that mean the same thing can actually make your document harder to understand. To avoid repetition, if you are thinking of describing something with two words that have the same meaning, use the word that sounds more powerful.

Original: Because you are an experienced senior, you should help aid the new incoming freshmen.

Revised: Because you are a senior, you should help the incoming freshmen.

Also, unnecessary qualifiers add no additional meaning to a sentence, so avoid redundant phrases such as:

absolutely necessary, advance warning, basic fundamentals, close scrutiny, final outcome, future plans, honest truth, joint collaboration, overused cliché, past history, regular routine, unexpected surprise, etc.

In all of these cases, it’s best to just use the second of the two words in each phrase, as none of these words needed qualifying.

4. Don’t use multiple negatives

Using more than one negative muddles the meaning of a document. Accentuate the positive when you can. Here’s an example from

Original: No changes will be made to the Department of Transportation’s regulations unless the administrator reviews them and concludes that they are not lacking any important information.

Revised: Changes will be made to the Department of Transportation’s regulations only if the administrator reviews them and concludes they are lacking important information.

5. Don’t use a pretentious word or phrase when an ordinary one will do.

“I always endeavor to utilize multisyllabic words. It is the manner in which sophisticated people write.” – from When Good People Write Bad Sentences
Pretentious language, rather than impressing or intimidating readers, just makes the writer look like a pompous show-off. High-sounding words can suggest that one’s ideas aren’t interesting on their own so they need to be “enhanced.”

Here are some overly fancy words and their down-to-earth alternatives:

altercation – fight; appellation – name; domicile – home; capacious – roomy; facilitate – aid; impecunious – poor; jocular – witty; masticate – chew; perambulate – stroll; modification – change; pusillanimous – timid; recapitulation – summary; sobriquet – nickname; vicissitude – hardship; vociferate – shout. (The list goes on, but you get the picture.) 

6. Finally, wherever possible, write in a visually appealing style.
Use headings, subheadings, bulleted lists, numbered lists, sidebars, graphics, tables, and parallel phrasing to make it easier for your readers to find the information quickly.

Remember, the purpose of writing is to communicate your ideas as clearly and as easily as possible – not to impress your readers with your erudition!

Copyright Jodie Renner,


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  1. (I hope this doesn't post twice! If it does, my apologies. I had difficulty with the comment form.)

    Hi Jodie,

    I've just started to beta read a non-fiction manuscript for a friend. While he's quite down to earth, once in awhile he gets a little wordy. I had the pleasure of leaving this comment for him in a paragraph on how the book is intended for "average people":

    Comment: Plus, skip using the word "pejorative." The "average person" doesn’t know what that word means.


    But seriously, Jodie, thanks for your post here! Very helpful!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Tracy! I'm glad my article is helpful.