6 tips for clear writing

Policy documents, research papers, advisory reports. Have you ever met anyone who enjoys reading them?

Many people read professional texts only grudgingly.

Often, that’s because of the style of writing . Long sentences, loads of jargon and abstract language.

How can you avoid doing that to your readers?

These 6 suggestions and examples should help you write texts that are pleasant to read and easy to understand.

1. Use the active voice where possible

  • Specify who or what performs the action.
  • Only use passive sentences when you want to emphasize the receiver of the action.

´Write active sentences´. It’s a very common piece of writing advice.

Still, scientific and policy papers are full of passive sentences. Scientists didn’t investigate, but ‘it has been investigated’. Civil servants don’t recommend, no, ‘it is recommended…’.

The problem with passive sentences is that they often omit relevant information.

Passive sentences make the actor invisible.
In a passive sentence, it is unclear who or what is performing the main action. In other words, the actor is invisible:

It has been decided that nuclear testing in the Pacific will be resumed.

These developments are considered crucial for…

Who decided? Who considers?

The active versions of these sentences do specify the main actor, and do reveal the full details:

The French president has decided to resume nuclear testing in the Pacific.

Our research team considers these developments crucial for…

Because a passive sentence doesn’t tell you who performs the action, it is more difficult to form a mental image of it. Which makes it harder to understand.

So, if you want to write clearly and vividly, make your sentences active.

But I am not allowed to write ‘I’ or ‘we’.
One of the reasons why passive sentences are so ubiquitous, is that many people are reluctant to write ‘I’ or ‘we’. They feel that that would violate scientific or policy conventions.

So, they write that ‘It has been concluded…’ or ‘It is advised…’.

Ask yourself whether it is really necessary to follow these conventions.

Recently, many governments have been trying to improve their communication. They encourage civil servants to use active constructions. Scientific journals also urge their authors to write actively.

For instance, the author instructions of the scientific journal Nature are very clear about this:

Nature journals prefer authors to write in the active voice (“we performed the experiment…”).

Unnecessary passive writing, it seems, is often the result of unchallenged conventions rather than rules and prohibitions. Dare to break bad habits and set a good example.

Only use passive sentences when you want to emphasize the receiver
There are occasions where you need passive sentences.

For instance, when the ‘receiver’ of the action is more important than the actor. In other words, if you want to highlight whoever or whatever undergoes the action, rather than emphasize whoever of whatever is performing the action.

Or, when it is difficult to clearly identify a single actor.

Take this example:

The white sediment layers were deposited during the Cretaceous.

This sentence is about the sediment layers, not about the processes that deposited them. Those processes are many and difficult to delineate. The passive construction puts the sediment layers at the center.

When there are multiple actors, which you can’t or don’t want to describe briefly, a passive construction is more useful.

Another example:

A lot of CO2 is emitted in the German Ruhr area.

Many actors in the Ruhr area emit CO2. The chemical and manufacturing industries, transport, buildings, agriculture and forestry, power plants…

Suppose you want to focus on the emissions, and on the location, the Ruhr area. Then this passive sentence is useful. An active version would specify all the polluters in a long list, which would distract from the emissions and the location.

How to check for this issue
For each sentence, ask yourself: what is the most important action in this sentence? Who performs this action? Did I specify this actor?

2. Don't turn verbs into nouns

  • Use verbs to describe actions, processes and events.

It is easy to turn verbs into nouns.

You can turn the verb to attack into the noun the attack. To mutate can become the mutation.

You can find many of these ‘frozen’ verbs in scientific and policy papers. Which may result in sentences like this one:

The acceleration of the liberalization of the energy market can be effected through the formulation of protocols for the trade in renewable energy.

The technical term for a verb that is ‘frozen’ into a noun is nominalization.

But literary scholar Helen Sword prefers to call them zombie nouns. Because ‘they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.’

Nominalizations often remove the actors from the text, just like passive sentences do. In the example above, who accelerates the liberalization? Who should formulate protocols?

In short: nominalizations take the life out of your text. The text becomes abstract, indirect and formal.

If you use verbs to describe the main actions, processes or events, your text becomes more direct. And therefore, much clearer:

The government can accelerate the liberalization of the energy market by formulating protocols for trading renewable energy.

Keep nominalizations to a minimum
Of course, in principle, there is nothing wrong with nominalizations. Some texts just are about abstract entities rather than human beings.

Nominalizations like global heating and globalization are useful : they save a lot of space and time.

But, much like zombies, nominalizations become problematic when they operate in groups. So, don’t freeze your verbs, but let them work.

How to check for this issue
Underline the words that describe the most important actions, processes and events in your text. Check whether the underlined words are verbs. If they aren’t, can you turn them into verbs? That may make your text more direct and concise, and easier to read.

3. Avoid unnecessary jargon. Introduce technical terms.

  • Replace technical and unfamiliar terms with simpler alternatives wherever possible.
  • If jargon is unavoidable, introduce it.
  • Start your sentences with simple terms, and put unfamiliar and technical terms at the end.

Jargon emerges wherever and whenever people specialize. From quantum physicists to wine aficionado’s and from Silicon Valley-techies to cyclists and gamers.

Jargon is a way to communicate efficiently with people within your specialist bubble. Outside that bubble, jargon is not useful.

So far, nothing new.

Unfortunately, specialists tend to overestimate the size of their bubble. They think more people speak their language than actually is the case.

The result: texts that are difficult to read, even for experts. As cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker laments:

I suffer the daily experience of being baffled by articles in my field, my subfield, even my sub-sub-subfield.

You too probably overestimate your readers. Even if they are your peers.

Whenever possible, use simpler language
Often, you don’t even need jargon, because there is a simpler alternative.

You can write ‘egg cell’ instead of ovum. Replace dyad with ‘pair’, ‘couple’ or ‘duo’. If necessary, use a thesaurus to find synonyms.

With these simple adjustments, you can reach a much larger audience.

Some knowledge workers use jargon out of fear that they will not be taken seriously when they use more accessible language.

This fear is usually unfounded. As science journalist Tim Radford wrote: : No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand.

Trust that your reader will base their judgement on the content of your text and the quality of your argument. And not on your technical vocabulary.

If you really need specialist terms, introduce them gently
Of course, as a specialist, you also use technical terms for which there are no easy alternatives. There aren’t any simple synonyms for words like fractal, albedo or randomized controlled trial.

When you use such terms, introduce them. Do this as gently as possible, by first offering a definition or explanation, and only after that, using jargon.

If you don’t, you end up with texts like this:

Programmed cell death is cell death mediated by an intracellular program. Apoptosis is a form of programmed cell death that occurs in multicellular organisms. Blebbing is a biochemical event that may lead to characteristic cell changes and death.

If, instead, you introduce the technical term after you have explained it, it can land softly in the mind of your reader.

It’s also helpful to announce that there is an unfamiliar term coming up. For instance, by writing ‘we call this…’or ‘the technical term for this phenomenon is…’

See how that works in this text:

Each cell contains a program for its self-destruction, which is called programmed cell death. When programmed cell death occurs in multicellular organisms, it’s called apoptosis. A characteristic step in this process is the blob-like protrusion of the cell contents. This is called blebbing.

The authors of the book The craft of research have a useful, two-word rule of thumb for this principle: complexity last. Meaning: put familiar and simple information at the beginning of your sentence, and unfamiliar and complex information at the end.

How to check for this issue
Underline the technical, specialist terms in your text. Or better still: ask someone who resembles your target audience to do this for you. Replace these terms with simpler alternatives. If there are none, introduce jargon gently. When possible, put technical terms at the end of the sentence.

4. Be concrete and specific

  • Make abstract terms more concrete and specific.
  • Use sensory language.
  • ‘Show’ as well as ‘tell’.

In 2018, the British Brexit minister Steve Barclay won the Golden Bull award for bad language. This was his winning text:

Under the Brexit deal, we have agreed to strike an ambitious new flexible and scalable relationship that allows us to combine resources worldwide for maximum impact.

Because Barclay didn’t explain what he meant by flexible, scalable, relationship, resources and impact, these abstract terms could mean anything. And therefore, the statement meant very little.

Or, in the words of the jury: “It means nothing, Steve, nothing”.

Make it specific
Specialists use abstract terms because these terms convey lots of information in very few words. That saves time and space.

Take this sentence:

Ocean acidification will negatively impact calcifying organisms.

The term calcifying organisms covers a wide variety of creatures. It saves you from having to list them all. Useful and concise.

But it only works with readers who are familiar with the wide variety of creatures that the abstract term refers to. To readers who aren’t, it means very little.

That’s also what’s problematic about ‘negative impact’. What impact? Negative how?

The sentence becomes much clearer when you specify those broad terms:

As oceans become more acidic, mollusks and sea urchins struggle to grow skeletons and shells.

This is not just useful for communicating with non-experts.

When you address marine biologists, who are familiar with the topic, it’s also better to specify the abstract terms. For instance, when you write ‘calcifying organisms’, those biologists may think of corals – corals are calcifying organisms too. But your story may actually be about mollusks and sea urchins. When you use concrete information, you avoid misinterpretation.

In short, don’t use terms that are unnecessarily broad. Choose words that fit perfectly. Don’t say ‘interaction’ when you mean ‘conversation’, or ‘public space’ when you mean ‘on the streets’.

Use sensory language
Making your text more specific often comes down to using more sensory descriptions: describing what things look like, or what they sound, feel or taste like.

Sensory language helps your reader create a mental image.

Which is good, because the better your reader can picture your story, the easier she will understand and remember the message.

Take the words ‘…struggle to grow skeletons and shells…’ in the example above. If you are not an expert on this topic, you probably can’t really picture what that looks like. A more sensory description helps you do that:

In acid environments, mollusks make thinner, more brittle shells, which fracture easily. And the protective shells of young sea urchins are smaller and often misshapen.

Show and tell
When you use sensory and specific descriptions, readers get more involved, and your story becomes more convincing.

This is why a well-known adage in creative writing and journalism is show, don’t tell. You can tell your reader that something happens – that ocean acidification has a negative impact, for instance. But you can also show them, by describing brittle shells and misshapen sea urchins. Your reader then draws a conclusion about the impact of ocean acidification by herself.

So, for example, if you want to convince your reader that your software is more accurate and efficient than most existing alternatives, you can decide to tell them that:

Our state-of-the-art medical imaging system is more efficient, without sacrificing accuracy.

But if you show in a concrete way what’s possible with this software, your story becomes more convincing:

Our medical imaging system makes use of the newest technology, so that MRI can be done in 15 minutes instead of 45, with the same result.

By showing what ‘efficiency’ means in practice, the benefits of this efficiency are instantly clear.

To guarantee that the message comes across, you can combine showing with telling:

Our state-of-the-art medical imaging system is more efficient, without sacrificing accuracy. It can do an MRI scan in 15 minutes instead of 45, with the same result.

How to check for this issue
Check your text for terms that are so broad your audience can’t picture them. Try to make them more specific, and see if you can describe them in sensory terms. Help your reader create a mental image, by ‘showing’ as well as ‘telling’.

5. Cut out waffle and avoid wordiness

  • Formulate the main message of a sentence in a concise and precise way.
  • Ditch redundant text.

It takes readers more time and effort to read texts that are wordy, or contain a lot of vague terms.

Worse: when you use a lot of unnecessary words and unclear language, your reader may overlook the main message.

Therefore, make sure you clearly formulate the main point that you want to make in a sentence. Then, formulate this message in a concise way.

Take for instance this not-so-very-clear sentence:

In the past years, the museum sector has witnessed a negative trend in terms of the number of visits.

This is unnecessarily vague. That’s because of wordy terms like ‘the museum sector’, ‘negative trend’ and ‘in terms of’.

Here is a clearer and more concise version:

In the past years, the number of museum visits decreased.

To get rid of redundant text, underline the key terms in a sentence. See if you can condense them and make them more precise. Then, try to make a concise sentence with these key terms.

For instance:

Research shows that expanding the global forest area by planting trees can mitigate global heating by reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by 25%.

Let’s say you pick the following key terms:

Research shows that expanding the global forest area by planting trees can mitigate global heating by reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by 25%.

If you condense these terms a bit, and then use them to formulate a new sentence, it becomes much easier to process:

By expanding the global forest area, we can reduce CO2 in the atmosphere by 25%, and mitigate global heating.

You could make it even shorter:

By expanding the global forest area, we can mitigate global heating.

You can then use the following sentences to add more detailed information. For instance, that expanding the forest area can reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, up to 25%. And that research has shown that this is possible.

How to check for this issue
Determine the main point of a sentence by underlining key terms. Check if you can make these terms more precise. Build a new, more concise sentence with these key terms.

6. Shorten and structure your sentences

  • Turn long sentences into several shorter ones.
  • Start your sentences with the main point.

Long sentences can be difficult to navigate. Especially when they contain complex information. Long sentences often contain multiple messages, threaded together in an elaborate structure.

It takes more effort to process such sentences. A reader who focuses on deciphering your complex sentence construction, is not focusing on the content of that sentence.

So, you make it easier for your reader by making shorter sentences. For instance, by replacing commas with periods.

This gives your reader space to breathe. And you divide your story in small units of information, which your reader can digest one by one.

Sentences that contain only one message are easier to process. You can indicate the relation between these single-message sentences with signaling words. This way, you connect the sentences in a logical structure.

Of course, there is no need to abolish long sentences altogether. In fact, by alternating long and short sentences, you give a nice rhythm to your text. That makes it pleasant to read.

Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to check the average length of your sentences every now and then.

Carefully structure your longer sentences
Long sentences are especially difficult to process when the main message appears at the end.

Take this sentence, with a belated main message:

Temperature fluctuations, wear, flooding and leaks, pests like insects and rodents, fungus and rot, but also human factors (theft of valuable pieces is not uncommon) threaten the collections in the city archives.

It isn’t clear what this long list is about until we reach the very end of the sentence. There, we find out that it’s a list of threats to the collection. But halfway through the sentence you could still think it’s about something completely different.

Look what happens when we put the main message at the start of the sentence:

The collections in the city archives are threatened by temperature fluctuations, wear, flooding and leaks, pests like insects and rodents, fungus and rot, but also human factors (theft of historical pieces is not uncommon).

The message becomes even clearer if you chop this long sentence up in smaller pieces:

The valuable collections in the city archives are under threat. Archivists have to deal with temperature fluctuations, wear, flooding and leaks. They fight fungus and rot, and pests such as insects and rodents. On top of that, theft of historical pieces is not uncommon.

This way, your reader can focus on processing the content of your text, rather than on navigating your complex sentence construction.

How to check for this issue
Chop long sentences up into shorter ones. For instance, by replacing commas with periods. In long sentences, underline the main message. See if you can start your sentence with that main message.

Final note: be flexible

None of these 6 tips are set in stone. Rather, these are rules of thumb, meant to help you write clear, unambiguous texts that are easy to understand.

It isn’t easy to write clearly about complex topics. But it is worth making the effort. Your readers will be grateful!

Marieke is trainer, advisor and editor at Analytic Storytelling. As an experienced science journalist, she is always looking for the stories hiding inside complex subjects.