A few notes on writing clean and clear

core principles to get you up and running

If writing is something you don’t do with great regularity, if it’s something you face with a bit of trepidation — or if you perhaps need a little refresher — these notes are for you.

Thinking through the writing

If you’re relatively new to the practice of writing, you might find these tips useful for guiding you through the process.

Speak to one individual

When you write, don’t imagine a nameless, faceless audience. And go beyond those user profiles as well. Instead, imagine one person, someone who fits within the audience you are reaching out to, someone you know, and write as though you were speaking to that person. Yes, speaking. Write as though you were leaning over the table at lunch and making clear and emphatic points. Without spitting.

In terms of the content, you will need to be thinking of all your potential audiences, but when you sit down to actually write, it can be helpful to focus on explaining to someone, as though that person were sitting right in front of you. Writing this way can help you to write more naturally, just the way you’d speak. This means fewer lengthy noun phrases, fewer passives, fewer convoluted sentences.

Coming up with a phrase you’d never say? Perhaps it’s best not to write it either.

Work iteratively

As with other creative endeavors, writing takes time. The final product represents layers of work. What the artist puts down on the canvas initially in the first sketches, what the sculptor first starts chipping away at in the stone, is a far cry from the polish and sophistication of the final works.

Do not expect to sit down, begin on page 1, and write on through to the end. Plan to spend some time sketching out your ideas and working with them. Plan to iterate over sections, paragraphs, sentences. The final work will be crisper and more polished if you work iteratively.

The final piece is to be short? You’d be surprised, at times, the work that can go into a short piece. But if the sweat of it shows, you’re not quite finished yet.

Hear the words

As you work through and review what you’ve written, or are writing, hear the words. Hear what you are saying. Don’t let it be abstract. Reading the passage aloud (yes, well maybe not at work) is one of the best ways to hear the flow of thought and the rhythm of the words.

Write (or rewrite) the intro last

Although the reader will encounter the introductory text for a document, chapter, or section first, you will most often write its final version last.

You’ll likely need to put something in place to begin working from, but be sure to come back to this intro text when you’ve finished a section, a chapter, or the document to reshape it now to better provide transition into the developed material.

Have conceptual content? Allow more time

When you are documenting a process or a procedure, when you are describing how an engagement went, you will generally find that the writing falls into place more easily than when you are introducing and explaining concepts.

That’s because the structure is already inherent in the material. When you are writing about something chronological or sequential (or spatial, when writing descriptively), when you are writing about something that has already happened, the overall structure is generally clear. This means you are more likely to be debating about choices for approach and expression at the sentence or paragraph level, but where you need to start, what you need to cover, and where you need to arrive is typically already clear.

When you are writing about concepts, on the other hand, you will often be struggling with those larger issues. Writing about concepts is more difficult and it takes more time.

Use the TOC as a writing tool

The table of contents presents an outline of the developing document. Use it as you work to gauge the logic of the material you have down on the page so far. When you’re nearing completion, use it to vet the nearly final structure.

Some of the things you’ll be looking at. Do all of the first-level chapters (or sections), when taken together, fully cover the issue you’d intended to cover? Is anything missing? Is anything redundant? Is anything out of place — out of sequence, perhaps, or off-topic in some way? Then, are the titles parallel? (That is, of similar structure —all plain noun phrases, all -ing phrases, all imperatives — and similar length.) And of course, are there any single subsections? A single subsection indicates some flaw in the structure. Typically, something is missing (one or more other subsections), something has been miscategorized, or something is redundant.

Ask the same questions for each subsequent section level. For example, Sections 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, and 2.4 should together fully canvass what you’d intended for Section 2: they should not omit anything promised in the title of Section 2, nor should they present anything not accounted for in that title. They should also follow a discernible logical order with respect to one another, and their titles should all be parallel.

All of those principles of good, clear, logical outlining that you learned early on as a student apply also in this context. The longer the doc, the more important is this review.

Check for content creep

As you work, you’ll want to periodically double-check that each section head accurately forecasts what readers will find in the section text that follows. Is the content what you would expect, given the section head? Is anything missing? Is there anything out of place?

The match may have been tight when you began, but have softened as you’ve worked. It could be now that the section needs to be retitled or reenvisioned. It could be that the material needs to be teased out into two or more sections. It could be that some of it belongs in another section already in place.

Write one day, review the next

When you’ve gotten a lot of writing done one day, it’s been a good day. Be sure to review that work with fresh eyes the next morning. After some time away from the doc, ways to streamline and improve will occur to you as you read.

And if you’re struggling to get something right? Put it aside and look at it the next morning. Often, what you struggled with then will now flow more easily.

The mind needs time to write.

As you review . . .

When any of us are first putting our thoughts down on the page, sorting out what it is we want to say, the writing is often uneven. We might say too little about this, too much about that. We are teasing out the thoughts as we work. Iterating helps to even out the landscape, dispelling these initial flaws.

Can you trim and tighten?

As you read through what you’ve written (ideally, a day or two later), you will often see ways to strengthen the writing by tightening it. Look for those tangles to sort out, those ungainly phrases that can be trimmed.

Can you augment?

And as you read through what you’ve written (ideally, a day or two later), you may also see ways to strengthen the writing by expanding and elaborating. Look for those thin spots to fill in.

Setting down the words

As we write, most of us are also thinking through our ideas. Writing becomes the medium for that thinking, and as we shape and reshape what’s on the page, we more closely approach what it is we’d like to say. There are a few techniques to be aware of as well, techniques that draw upon how English is structured as a language and how we read and process it for ideas.

Chunk the text

Break up chapters into manageable sections. Break sections into manageable paragraphs — and use paragraphing to signal a change of topic.

Use tables and lists to break out information for easy scanning and quick comprehension, but (in most cases) balance these forms with paragraph text.

Use chapter and section intros well

The introduction to a chapter or a section is your chance to focus the audience’s attention where you want it. It is also the place to set context — to tie this section’s content in with the flow of the overall doc, if that’s important, to provide any info needed to make sense of the content that follows in the section, and so on.

Don’t write this text as throwaway text, merely repeating in sentence form what the section head already makes clear. That would be text without any value.

Place the most important ideas at the beginnings and the ends of paragraphs

The beginnings and the endings of paragraphs are highlighted positions in text. Use the middle of paragraphs to develop ideas, to further explain. But open and close paragraphs on significant points.

This approach will help the reader to see your most salient points. What the paragraph opens on establishes what you will be discussing. What it closes on will act as a mini-conclusion — or simply lend emphasis and highlight the transition to the next point.

Write “known to new”

When you write explainer text, most of what you write should fall in with the natural cognitive pattern of such text: open the sentence with the known information, and end on the new. That known information might be something just mentioned a sentence or two previous, or it might be something you can suppose your audience to already know or to at least be familiar with.

Not every sentence need unfold in precisely this way. But when you keep this in mind, and write a good percentage of the sentences to this pattern, your text will automatically become more cohesive. Meaning, it will be clearer and it will flow.

Tell stories with your sentences

As you work with the words on the page, working out also what it is you have to say and how you will say it, align the core of the sentence with the action and the agent of that action. Make the verb strong and descriptive. Make whoever undertakes that action in real life then the grammatical subject of the verb.

In this way, your sentences will tell stories and the sum of them will be easier to follow.

It may not happen all at once, most particularly in the earlier drafts, but keep this aspect of the writing in mind as you review and revise.

Shift modifiers and transitional elements left, end on the news of that sentence

If you shift the more mobile units of the sentence to the left and highlight the new information at the end, you will most often also be writing from known information to new. (Yes, this point is important enough to mention twice.)

Your sentences will be more informative this way. They will tend also to be more emphatic. Such sentences, taken together, will often also be more cohesive to start with, chaining back to thoughts already broached, looking forward to new points to be further developed.

See to it that every word in the sentence is doing work

When you’ve gotten the sentence just to where you want it, every word in that sentence should be doing work. That work might have to do with clarity. It might have to do with rhythm and pacing. But it should be work such that, if the word were removed, the sentence would suffer.

In the final text, nothing should be extraneous.