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Rules of Clear Writing

The 11 Rules of Clear Writing

Nov 17, 2012 - Posted to  Writing in General
We all know that it's important to be clear when you're writing academic papers. Whether you're evaluating historical texts, describing scientific work, or analyzing a novel, the goal is always to present your ideas in a clear, concise manner that the reader can easily understand. What's not always clear, however, is just how to build the strong, distinct sentences that will impress your reader. To help you make your writing as good as it can be, we've put together this list of the do's and don't of writing clearly.

Terms

Here's some vocabulary you'll need to know before we get started:

Pronoun

A pronoun is a word that is substituted for another noun in a sentence. Common English pronouns include it, them, you, I, and she/he.
For example, in the second clause in the sentence "The girl wanted to wear her favorite shirt, but she couldn't find it," she takes the place of girl, and it takes the place of favorite shirt. The word that the pronoun replaces is called the antecedent.

Clauses

A clause is basically a collection of word that form a complete thought. Some can stand alone as sentences (these are called independent clauses), while some need to be attached to another complete sentence in order to make sense (these are called subordinate or dependent clauses). In the sentence, "My sister, who loves to bake, volunteered to make dessert," the clause "my sister volunteered to make dessert" is independent, and the clause "who loves to bake" is dependent.

Modifying Clauses

A modifying clause is a dependent clause that modifies a noun or adjective.
For example, in the sentence "The girl, who normally was very shy, had worked up the courage to ask her lab partner to the dance," the phrase "who normally was very shy" is a dependent clause that modifies, i.e., tell you more about, the noun girl.

Verb phrase

A verb phrase is a verb along with all the modifiers and objects that go with it.
For example, in the sentence "The boy hit the ball out the window," the verb phrase is "hit the ball out the window." Hit is the verb, and the ball and out the window modify it.

Rule #1: Don't write like you talk

It may be the same language, but written and spoken English can actually be pretty different. Spoken English uses informal phrasing and language that won't work in a professional or academic text, and we all also tend to make lots of grammatical mistakes when speaking. These problems are usually ignored as long as the listener understands what we're trying to say, but you can't get away with these mistakes when writing. These differences mean that you have to be careful not to let your written work look like how you talk:
It's easy when you're writing to just like get caught up in the writing process and just put down on paper all the words that are running through your head even if they don't really work too well as sentences when you write them out so they don't get lost. This is especially true when you're writing a rough draft because it's so hard to think in complete sentences so you just type and type and type without doing any editing because you just want to get it all done you know? You can always go back and fix things.
It's fine if your rough draft has informal language, but you need to be sure to go back in and clean it up before you hand in your final draft:
When you're writing a paper it's easy to get caught up in the writing process. You might be in a rush put the words running through your head down on paper before you lose them, but writing quickly can lead to sentences that don't make sense. This is especially true when you're working on a first draft, since your ideas are not fully formed. If you complete your rough draft in a hurry, it's important to go back later and edit.

Rule #2: Be clear with your pronouns

Sentences with pronouns can be confusing if it's unclear who the pronoun is referring to. In the sentence
Amanda told her sister that her books were in the living room.
it's unclear whose books are in the living room. Does "her books" refer to Amanda or her sister? To avoid this mistake, avoid using the same pronoun to refer to two different antecedents in the same sentence. The above example can be rewritten several ways:
Amanda told her sister, "Your books are in the living room."
Amanda told her sister, "My books are in the living room."
Amanda told her sister Claire that the books Amanda was looking for were in the living room.
Pronoun antecedents can also be unclear if there's no antecedent given in the sentence.
Both the children and their parents were excited to go to the amusement park. They got up early to pack.
In the second sentence above, it's not clear who they refers to. Is it the children, the parents, or both? If you include a pronoun with many possible antecedents in a sentence, you need to rewrite and replace it with a specific noun:
Both the children and their parents were excited to go to the amusement park. The whole family got up early to pack.

Rule #3: Keep modifying clauses close to their object

As with pronouns, when you're using modifying clauses it needs to be clear what exactly those words are modifying. This is usually done by making sure that modifying clauses are as close as possible in the sentence to the word they refer to.
Marissa did better than the rest of class on her test who was surprised by her grade.
In this example, it's not clear who the phrase "who was surprised by her grade" is modifying. Is it Marissa or the class? If it is modifying Marissa, the clause should be moved next to her name in the sentence:
Marissa, who was surprised by her grade, did better than the rest of the class.
If it's modifying the rest of the class, then it can be moved next to the word class to make that clear:
Marissa did better on the test than the rest of her class, who were surprised by her grade.
Another example:
Nervous about his interview, Aaron's suit had been ironed twice.
In this construction, it looks the phrase "nervous about his interview" is modifying "Aaron's suit," meaning Aaron's suit is nervous, which obviously it can't be. The sentence can be rewritten to make it more clear:
Nervous about his interview, Aaron ironed his suit twice.

Rule #4: Create smooth transitions between sentences

Transitions aren't just for moving between paragraphs. Using words like because, next, however, and in fact will help tell the reader how your sentences relate to each other and will make your writing clear and logical. These words tell the reader if you're going to make a comparison, give an example, or provide a counterpoint. Without transitions, the jump between sentences can seem choppy:
The author uses allusions to Shakespeare to make her characters seem educated. These allusions only make the characters seem pretentious.
With a transition, the logically connection between the sentences is much clearer:
The author uses allusions to Shakespeare to make her characters seem educated. However, these allusions only make the characters seem pretentious.
Another example:
The study showed a clear link between the use of antibiotics and the growth of drug-resistant diseases. For example, the growth of antibiotic-resistant strains of tuberculosis has been noted only in the last five years.
More transitional words. therefore; as a result; furthermore; for example; at the same time; first; in contrast; on the other hand; obviously; surprisingly; in conclusion; as was noted earlier

Rule #5: Get rid of words you don't need

An important part of good writing is knowing what you can do without. It might seem painful to go back and delete a part of something you've working so hard on, but sometime there are phrases or sentences that just have to go. One of the most important of these phrases to look out for is the unneeded modifier. These are usually words like very or pretty that don't actually change the meaning of the word being modified. If you say something is "very rare" or "pretty rare," you haven't actually told the reader anything that can't be captured by just using the term "rare." So, when you're editing, delete all these unnecessary modifiers: it will make your writing clear and concise.
Unnecessary modifiers. very; pretty; unique; actually; basically; rather; really; kind of; practically

Rule #6: Use parallel construction

When listing things in a series, you need to use parallel construction. Basically, this means that every item in the list needs to serve the same purpose in the sentence. A good test for parallel construction is to check whether the sentence would make sense for each item in the series if the others were removed. Take a look at this example:
Before the party we need to clean the bathroom, the living room, and buy food.
If we break this series down into a list, it looks like this:
Before the party we need to:
  • clean the bathroom.
  • the living room.
  • buy food.
Note that "Before the party we need to the living room" doesn't make sense. If we break it down a different way:
Before the party we need to clean:
  • the bathroom.
  • the living room.
  • buy food.
you should notice that "Before the party we need to clean buy food" is the item in the series that doesn't make sense. There are a number of ways the sentence can be rewritten:
Before the party we need to clean the bathroom, tidy the living room, and buy food.
Before the party we need to clean the bathroom and living room and also buy food.
Now all three items make sense. A good general guideline for using parallel construction is that each item in the list should be the same part of speech or conjugated in the same way. In the above example, we created parallel construction by making each item a verb phrase. Note that all the verbs are in the present tense. Below are more examples where each item in the list is identically constructed:
She is driving, talking on the phone, and eating a sandwich at the same time.
Pick up tomatoes, soup, and pasta from the store.
Alex still has to pass the written exam, take her driver's test, and learn to park before she'll be allowed to drive her parents' car.

Rule #7: Choose the active voice

Voice refers to who is doing the action in a sentence. In active voice, the subject of the sentence is the one performing the action of the verb.
Luis hit his brother with a stick.
Michael ate the last cookie in the box.
In these examples, the subjects (Luis and Michael) are the ones performing the action (hit and ate). Notice that each verb has a direct object that receives the action of the verb. In the first example, his brother is the one being hit, and in the second, the last cookie is what's being eaten.
In passive voice, the object that receives the action of the verb is the subject of the sentence.
His brother was hit with a stick by Luis.
The last cookie in the box was eaten by Michael.
In general, it's best to avoid using the passive voice. It's wordy and can often lead to vague, confusing sentences. For instance, "The car was parked," is technically a complete sentence, but it leaves out crucial information: who parked the car? In a paper, you would switch the sentence to active voice by writing "My dad parked the car." It keeps your paper clear and makes the writing more purposeful.
The exception to this rule is scientific writing, where it's usually encouraged, and sometimes required, for writers to use the passive voice. This is used to make the work seem impartial. In a scientific paper, you'd write "Experiments were conducted on the two-week old plants" instead of "We conducted experiments on the two-week old plants."

Rule #8: Don't verb your nouns or noun your verbs

A problem often linked to passive voice is the overuse of the noun form of verbs. For example, you might write
The discovery of the new planet was attributed to scientists in Japan.
To make this sentence more active and exciting, you can switch it from passive to active by swapping the noun discovery for the verb discover:
Scientists in Japan discovered a new planet.
On the other hand, you should try to avoid turning nouns into verbs. While this is how a lot of English verbs came about (for instance when you eye or elbow someone or you party too hard), if you try it in a paper often this will result in made-up words and grammatical mistakes:
My brother favorited that sweater all through high school.
She impresssioned her teacher so much that he gave her an A.
These sentences should be rewritten with the correct noun form of the word:
That was my brother's favorite sweater all through high school.
She made such a good impression on her teacher that he gave her an A.

Rule #9: Take out to be verbs

This rule is a big favorite of English teachers everywhere: don't overuse the verb to be in your writing. While it's not technically incorrect, when you use is/was/are/where etc., it will make your paper seem flat:
The main characters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice are Elizabeth and Jane Bennett. At the beginning of the novel, both sisters are worried about their prospects for the future, but neither is keen to marry any of the dreary suitors currently available.
Notice how uninteresting the above passage is. It sounds more like a boring recitation of facts than an interesting analysis. By swapping out the to be verbs for action verbs, we can make the passage more lively.
Elizabeth and Jane Bennett, the main characters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, worry about their future prospects for marriage. Neither, however, will agree to marry any of the dreary suitors currently available.
Now Elizabeth and Jane are actually performing actions (worrying, agreeing) instead of just being.
If it's too hard for you to focus on avoiding to be verbs when you're writing, try waiting until you're done with your paper to fix them. Once your paper is complete, go back and highlight all the to be verbs and replace them with action verbs. Often you'll need to either move parts of the sentence around or combine sentences to make it work. If you're having trouble finding a verb, just ask yourself what the subject of the sentence is doing. If they're not performing any action, you might not need that sentence in your paper anyway.

Rule #10: Don't be iffy

There are lots of phrases that we tend to use in speech that aren't necessary when writing. These includes expressions like as a matter of fact, for the most part, and what I'm trying to say. Often students use these phrases because they're not sure about what they want to say or when they don't feel comfortable taking a side in an argument:
What I'm trying to say is that, for the most part, the students who take the test are, in a manner of speaking, cheating.
If you find these kinds of phrases in your writing, cut them out to keep your sentences short and to the point:
The students who take the test are cheating.
There's nothing wrong with making an argument in your writing: as long as you have the evidence to back it up, don't be afraid to take a stand.
Iffy words and phrases. in my opinion; it seems that; it might be; for the most part; what I want to make clear; the point is; as a matter of fact

Rule #11: Don't use a big word when a little word will do

It's all well and good to use your word processor's thesaurus when you're stuck looking for the perfect word. Be careful, though, that you don't go overboard with the fancy language. Often replacing a basic word with bigger, more extravagant option will make your paper seem flowery and overdone. This is especially dangerous if you're choosing words you don't really know the meaning of - just because they're in the thesaurus doesn't mean the words are interchangeable. All synonyms will have subtly different meanings, so if you pick a word you don't understand there's always a chance you're using it incorrectly. For example, here's the opening sentence of this paragraph with words replaced using suggested options from the thesaurus:
It's all mineshaft and blameless to use your word supercomputer's lexicon when you're immovable eyeing for the unadulterated announcement.
Doesn't make a lot of sense does it? It's an extreme example, but even small changes can change the meaning of a sentence. If I just changed the word good to the word blameless, as in the example above, I've subtly shifted the meaning of my sentence. When I say "The girl is good," I'm describing her as favorable or pleasant. When I say "The girl is blameless," I'm saying that she hasn't done anything wrong. It's a small change, but it can make a big difference in your writing.
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