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The Four Fundamentals of Clarity in Writing

by guest author, Hayley Milliman

In this article, guest author Hayley Milliman takes us through four ways to improve the clarity of your writing.

Clarity is key in getting our point across as writers. When our writing is clear, our meaning is clear. When our writing is unclear, our meaning is muddled. And when our meaning is muddled, our readers can’t properly engage with our work.

Fortunately, you can improve the clarity of your writing by brushing up on a few key fundamentals. 

How to Improve the Clarity of Your Writing

Clarity starts at the sentence level. Think about your sentences as mini movies that your readers play in their heads. They need to know the actors and the actions of these mini movies to correctly picture what’s going on. If your writing is unclear at the sentence level, your readers won’t understand what’s happening in your work. Worse yet, they may disengage from your writing because they can’t understand it.

We start by thinking about clarity at the sentence level because if your sentences aren’t clear, your paragraphs won’t be clear. If your paragraphs aren’t clear, the rest of your work won’t be clear. 

Unsure about how to ensure your sentences are clear and easy to read? Not to worry. Let’s take a look at four easy ways to improve sentence level clarity.

1. Reduce Sticky Sentences

There are two types of words in sentences: working words, which convey meaning to the reader and are essential to the purpose of the sentence, and glue words, which are the extra words that hold sentences together. 

Glue words aren’t essential to the meaning of your sentence. They’re not the actors or the actions. If you remove or rewrite your sentence to eliminate these glue words, the sentence will have the same meaning. It may even be more clear for your readers to understand. 

Sticky sentences are sentences that contain too many glue words. They should be rewritten to improve clarity for your readers.

While glue words are important to make your sentence coherent, when you have too many in a sentence, it becomes hard to read. By removing unnecessary glue words, your sentence becomes clearer.

Consider the following: 

  • It doesn’t matter what kind of coffee I buy, where it’s from, or if it’s organic or not—I need to have cream because I really don’t like how the bitterness makes me feel.
  • I add cream to my coffee because the bitter taste makes me feel unwell.

Each sentence has the same main idea: that the narrator can’t drink coffee because it makes him or her feel sick. However, the second sentence is clearer and easier to read than the first because it has fewer glue words. The meaning isn’t obscured by extra words.

You should aim for an average of less than 40% glue words in your sentences. That doesn’t mean that all of your sentences have less than 40% glue words. Some may have 50%, some may have 30%. As long as your document averages at 40% glue words, your work will be clear.

You can read up on how to write a great opening sentence for your novel, here.

2. Avoid Clichés

Clichés are phrases like actions speak louder than words, love is blind, and the grass is always greener on the other side. Many writers use clichés when they’re trying to sound relatable or to make their writing more accessible. Unfortunately, clichés often do the opposite: alienate readers that aren’t familiar with the phrase or do not understand it.

Even though these expressions are older than dirt (see what I did there?), when isolated, their meaning isn’t clear. This reduces the chance that your audience will engage with your work, especially if your audience is made up of non-native speakers. 

When editing, aim to remove phrases that aren’t universal or don’t translate well into a different language. That way, your work is accessible to everyone.

3. Make Your Subjects and Verbs Shine with Active Voice

When your sentence is in the active voice, your subjects and verbs are clear. When it’s in passive voice, your subject is unclear.

Here’s an example of passive voice:

The sample was selected.

Who is selecting the sample? We’re not sure, because the sentence doesn’t say so. Passive voice leaves your sentence open for interpretation by the reader, especially when it’s uncertain who or what is performing the action in the sentence.

Consider the same sentence in active voice:

Researchers selected the sample.

Now, the subject is clear. Readers won’t need to think very hard to understand this sentence.

There are a few types of writing where passive voice has its place, but typically, active voice is better. While passive voice isn’t technically wrong, it can make your writing harder to understand, which, in turn, makes it less engaging. 

4. Use Precise Words

Adverbs are words that add colour or style to your adjectives and verbs. Like passive voice, adverbs aren’t grammatically incorrect, but they can reduce clarity because they prop up boring, imprecise verbs.

For instance: 

  • Scarlett ran really fast.
  • Scarlett sprinted.

In the first example, the word “really” is an adverb that modifies “fast,” which is itself an adverb that modifies the verb “ran.” The word choice in the second sentence, “sprinted,” is more precise. Replacing adverb + verb constructions with a precise strong verb will paint a clear picture for your reader.

Common adverbs that are guilty of propping up weak word choices include:

  • really
  • just
  • very
  • actually
  • in order to
  • definitely
  • absolutely

If you see these words in your writing, you can likely improve your clarity by cutting them and choosing a more specific verb or adjective in your sentence.

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Do You Want Help From ProWritingAid?

Wondering how you can easily improve the clarity of your writing? An editing tool can help. ProWritingAid’s 20 reports identify clarity issues in your writing and make suggestions for fixing them. Here’s just a taste of what ProWritingAid can do:

Clarity in Writing: Final Thoughts

You can have the best idea in the world, but if your writing isn’t clear, readers won’t know it. 

To make your writing clearer, you have to start with your sentences: the fundamental building blocks of your writing. By eliminating adverbs, making passive verbs active, forgoing clichés, and removing extra words in your sentences, you’ll ensure your writing effectively communicates your ideas.

About the author

Hayley Milliman is thrilled to be ProWritingAid’s Content Lead, as it gives her an excuse to think deeply about words every single day. Prior to joining ProWritingAid, Hayley spent a number of years as an elementary school teacher, which was a crash course in learning how to entertain an indifferent audience. These days, she puts her storytelling skills to use writing blog articles and working on her first novel.

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Make the hardest part of writing easier

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