How to write more clearly and concisely

Journalism professors like to extol the virtues of a punchy, lean, and clear writing style because it keeps readers interested.

"The easiest thing for a reader to do is to stop reading. Make it relevant. Keep it short. Keep it tight." That's good advice, but it's hard to follow. As Mark Twain apologetically wrote at the end of a long letter: "If I'd had more time, I'd have written a shorter letter."

Yet you can pare the repetition and irrelevant tangents from your work by asking key questions and using specific techniques.

Tips for writing more clearly and concisely

  • What is the point and the pay-off? Before you begin, know the answers to these questions: Why am I writing this story? What is its central point? Why should my readers care?
  • Is it organized along an easy-to-follow progression of facts and events? Dash off a rough outline of what you think should be in the story, in order of importance. It doesn't need to be polished or clever. You just want to identify the facts you think are important to understanding what you want to say. Organize this list in a logical order. Through this process, redundancies, repetition, and factual lapses leap from the screen. Transitions present themselves.
  • Are sentences easy to understand, and does their tone vary? The tone and rhythm of a story can either bore or enchant a reader. Vary sentence length and structure to avoid a singsong cadence or droning monotone. In general, sentences longer than 26 words are like overloaded carts, losing both meaning and readers as they lurch toward a point.
  • Is it written in the active voice? Every writing coach offers this advice because active sentences are leaner and stronger. It takes more words to write in the passive voice. Compare: "The course was run by the pack" to "The pack ran the course." In general, write less than 10 percent of your article using passive voice.
  • Is the article credible? It will be if you research and check facts thoroughly and you write with authority. Use definite, clear phrases. Limit your use of "probably," "usually," "may," "possibly," or "appropriate."
  • Are adjectives and adverbs overused? Use adjectives and adverbs as if they were hot sauce--they should flavor, not overwhelm, the sentence.
  • Grow your own verb garden. Verbs are the beating heart of a sentence. Collect them, and sprinkle them with variety through your prose to give writing strength. One notable exception is "Said". Using synonyms for said, such as "exclaimed," "interjected" or "interrupted," denote amateurish writing. Said is better left as "said," since whatever was said also should convey how it was said.

Let your computer help you produce lean, clear prose.
Open Microsoft Word and activate the "readability statistics" feature:

  • Click "Tools" in the toolbar, and then select "Spelling and Grammar"
  • Click "Options" when the window appears
  • Under "Grammar" listing, check the box labeled "Show readability statistics"

When you've finished spell-checking, the readability statistics box will pop up to list the average word count in your sentences, and what percentage of them are in the passive voice.

'Nuff said.