Clear and simple writing is best

Good writing is direct, clear and precise. It is unambiguous.

As a writer your goal is to get thoughts, swiftly and accurately, to your reader.

The best way to do this is by putting as few barriers as possible between your message and your audience.

Forget what you learnt in school

You may have impressed teachers and exam markers with your grasp of obscure long words and clever grammar: in the real world simple, straightforward language works best.

This applies to all types of writing.

Think of your readers

Not all your readers are native English speakers. Not all them are highly educated. It’s unlikely you’ll impress those who are both with fancy words and cleverness.

  • If you have something worth saying (or writing) prefer short words over long ones. Words with Anglo-Saxon roots are easier to understand than ones from a Latin background. They are also easier to spell.
  • Use the smallest number of words needed. Where possible keep sentences and paragraphs short. A paragraph should contain a single idea.
  • Avoid jargon and foreign words.
  • Try to write in the everyday speech of ordinary people, but don’t overdo the chattiness and avoid slang.
  • Most of the time the active voice is better than the passive voice.
  • Learn how to punctuate.

5 thoughts on “Clear and simple writing is best

  1. Pingback: Better writing: Go easy on the adjectives « Knowledge Workers

  2. “The active voice is always better than the passive voice.” Bollocks. Pure unadulterated bollocks. Forgive my pithy response but I like your articles and that is the first piece of demonstrable drivel you’ve come out with.

    Otherwise keep up the good work.

      • Active voice may not always be better than the passive voice but it is always clearer who is doing what (that’s why it is “active”; you know who is doing the activity).
        Passive voice may be dramatic (The sinking of the Titanic as opposed to Titanic sinks) or preferable in group writing (such as detailing the work of an academic team) but it is seldom as clear as the active voice. As such, passive voice is favoured by politicians and executives when they dodge blame for an action (The company failed to deliver a dividend; I failed to deliver shareholders a dividend). And it usually leads to longer sentences.

      • Yes. If I was instructing a young news journalist I’d tell them to write everything in the active voice until they get the hang of it. In that limited sense it is ‘always’ better.

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