Clarity in Writing
Clarity in writing means the ability to write in a way that is easy to understand. It therefore enables you to make your point without ambiguity. Clarity is particularly important when you are writing for non-native speakers. These readers may be confused by convoluted sentences, long words or slang phrases. However, writing clearly is better for any audience because your meaning will be more obvious.
Writing clearly is a skill like any other: it can be developed but it needs practice. This page provides some ideas to help you increase the clarity of your writing. You may also find it helpful to look at our pages on Coherence and Conciseness, because these concepts also help to improve the clarity of your writing.
It is almost ironic to be providing a definition of clarity, because the word means ‘clear and easily understood’.
clarity, n. clearness
Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition.
Writing that shows clarity, or clear writing, is therefore easy to read and understand.
A question of genius?
Some of the greatest authors in the world did not write with clarity. James Joyce’s Ulysses is famously hard to read and understand. However, they are likely to be the exception that proves the rule set out by Anthony Hope Hawkins:
“Unless one is a genius, it is best to aim at being intelligible.”
Tips for Writing Clearly
1. Be familiar with grammatical rules
Grammar exists for a reason. It provides conventions that help to structure sentences in a way that readers will understand.
Clarity therefore requires a strong understanding of the rules of grammar. You need to understand when and why they are needed—and also when you can break the rules.
Our pages on Introduction to Grammar and Improving Your Grammar provide more information.
2. Choose the word that most closely matches your intended meaning
In English, words can have two possible meanings:
The denotative meaning (or denotation) is the ‘dictionary definition’ or literal meaning of the word; and
The connotative meaning (or connotation) is the emotional meaning of the word: the weight that it carries because of the way that it has previously been used, or its connections to another term or idea.
When choosing a word, you need to consider both meanings to ensure that you pick the right word.
For example, ‘concise’, ‘brief’ and ‘terse’ all have the same denotative meaning: short. However, ‘terse’ implies that communication is cut short, rather than simply being short. If you want to convey that someone is being brief in their communications because they are offended, ‘terse’ would be the right choice. If you want to say that someone keeps their communications short as a preference, then ‘concise’ would work better.
3. Choose simple words
The rule here is straightforward: always choose the simplest word to convey your meaning.
Long words do not make you sound more educated. If anything, they may expose gaps in your understanding, especially if you use the wrong one. Instead, go for the shortest, simplest word available.
For example, use ‘dog’ not ‘canine’, ‘car’ not ‘automobile’ and ‘go’, not ‘proceed’.
Above all, be certain that you understand the meaning of the word you have chosen. If you are in any doubt, choose another word.
Technical terms, jargon and abbreviations
Sometimes you may need or want to use a technical term, piece of jargon widely used in your profession or organisation, or an abbreviation.
Before you do so, consider whether your audience will be familiar with this term.
If so, it is fine to use it. However, if not, you will need to explain or define it first. Alternatively, you could use a synonym or alternative simpler term.
It is generally advisable to avoid using too many abbreviations, especially non-standard ones. This follows even if you define them on first use.
4. Replace vague words and phrases with more precise ones
Seek out precise words and terms to replace vague ones. If there is any potential ambiguity in your word choice, find a better (clearer, less ambiguous) word to use. Try to replace any imprecise words with more specific ones. For example, can you replace ‘some’ or ‘lots’ with numbers?
Sometimes this process may expose some ambiguity in your thinking. If so, you will need to resolve that before you can move on.
“I meant what I said and I said what I meant...”
Dr Seuss, Horton Hatches the Egg
5. Shorten your sentences
One important way to improve the clarity of your writing is to make it more concise.
“When you wish to instruct, be brief. Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind.”
The first aspect is shortening your sentences. Start from a rule of thumb that any sentence that is longer than one line could be shorter. Ideally, each sentence should express a single idea. It is also a good idea to remove any redundant words, starting with modifiers (usually adjectives and adverbs) and qualifiers (words that amplify modifiers, like really, generally and completely).
Focus on making sure that every word is absolutely necessary to your meaning.
Our page on Conciseness in Writing has some ideas for ways that you can reduce the length of your writing.
6. Remove non-restrictive clauses from your sentences
Removing non-restrictive clauses is a special case of the rule about shortening your sentences.
The definition of a non-restrictive clause is that it is non-essential. It can be removed from the sentence without altering its meaning.
Rewriting your sentences to remove non-restrictive clauses will always make your writing clearer.
(For a quick summary of clauses, subordinate clauses and non-restrictive clauses, see box below.)
A summary of clauses, subordinate clauses and restrictive clauses
- Clauses are groups of words that contain a subject and related verb, such as “I went home”.
- Sentences may contain several clauses. For example, the sentence “When I went home, the dog greeted me” contains two clauses: “When I went home” and “the dog greeted me”.
- Subclauses, or subordinate clauses, are clauses that cannot stand alone as sentences. Instead, they add to the meaning of another clause or sentence.
- A subordinate clause that contains a relative pronoun (that, which, who, when, where and whose) is called a relative clause.
- There are two types of relative clause, restrictive and non-restrictive.
- Restrictive clauses are essential to the meaning of the sentence.
- Non-restrictive clauses are NOT essential to the meaning, and may even disrupt the sentence. They can be spotted because they are often in the middle of the sentence, surrounded by commas.
Consider the sentence, “We have a takeaway, either Chinese, Indian, or fish and chips, every Friday night”. The phrase “either Chinese, Indian, or fish and chips” is a non-restrictive clause. If you removed it, the overall meaning would still be clear.
7. Remove ambiguity by using nouns after words like this, that, those and these.
Words like this, that, those and these are a common cause of ambiguity in writing.
Consider just how often you hear someone say, ‘Can I use this?’, and you have to look up and say, ‘Use what?’
Always add a noun after these words.
8. Check your pronoun use
Pronouns are a major cause of ambiguity. They are especially likely to be an issue when you are drafting and redrafting, because you may move sentences around. They are particularly problematic when you have a sentence or section about two people or things that take the same pronoun (see box).
Consider the text:
At the seaside, Jane saw Holly in the distance, and she shouted,
“Hi! Come and say hello to my friends!”
In this example, who did the shouting? It could be either Jane or Holly.
A better way of putting it would have been EITHER (for Jane shouting):
At the seaside, Jane saw Holly in the distance, and shouted,
“Hi! Come and say hello to my friends!”
OR (for Holly shouting):
At the seaside, Jane saw Holly in the distance. Holly shouted over,
“Hi! Come and say hello to my friends!”
9. Work on your punctuation
Punctuation is the system of signs and symbols that tells your reader how a sentence should be read.
Punctuation is crucial to the meaning of a sentence. The wrong punctuation can even change the meaning (see box)
What a difference!
Before you say that punctuation is unnecessary, just look at the difference in meaning when a comma is inserted into a simple three-word sentence.
“Let’s eat, Granny!” vs. “Let’s eat Granny!”
In this example, the context gives you the necessary information—but this is not always true.
It is worth taking time to improve your punctuation to ensure that your meaning is clear. Our page on Punctuation provides a useful introduction to the use of each of the main elements of punctuation.
10 Use headings
Headings help to break up your text.
They make it easier to see when you have moved onto a new idea. This is particularly important when writing for an online audience (and for more about this, see our page Know Your Medium).
It may also be helpful to use bullet points or numbered lists. These also break up the text, but make it clear that ideas are connected.
11. Watch out for common grammatical errors
There are two grammatical errors that are particularly likely to cause ambiguity:
Dangling participles are where there is a missing noun: a participle in a sentence has no obvious subject.
For example: If found out, the consequences could be severe.
The real subject is the consequences—but they cannot be found out. The implied subject is the person who has done something wrong, and may be discovered. However, that person is not mentioned at all. A better version would be:
If found out, they could face severe consequences.
Incorrect modifying clauses are where a modifying clause does not apply to the right subject.
For example: Jumping on the trampoline, the dog surprised the girl and made her fall off.
As currently drafted, it looks like the dog is doing the jumping: unusual, but not impossible. However, it is the girl who fell off, suggesting that she was on the trampoline. Who, therefore, was doing the jumping?
A better version would be:
As the girl was jumping on the trampoline, a dog surprised her, and she fell off.
A Final Thought
The clarity of your writing also depends on your audience.
Some audiences will be more comfortable with more technical terms. For others, you will need to use simpler language, or provide more explanation. Always be mindful of who will be reading your text—and not just the primary audience, but also those who may come across it later.