Please Don’t Write Well, Write Clearly

NOTE: The Growth Economics Blog has moved sites. Click here to find this post at the new site.

Chris Blattman just published a piece about the 10 things he’d tell college kids. I think they’re all generally great pieces of advice, but I want to expand on one point in particular.

His #3 piece of advice is “Learn to write well”. As a general concept, I’m all for that. Chris says,

You’ll be surprised how many proposals, pitches, reports, and letters you’ll write in life. Even if you’re not in that line of work, until they put microchips in our brains (which, admittedly, might not be so far off) writing emails will probably be the main way you connect with your bosses, colleagues, friends, and customers.

This is absolutely right. For many, many jobs, the majority of time is probably spent writing in some form or another.

But I’d make a clear distinction between being a “good writer” and a “clear writer”. For the writing that Chris is talking about – proposals, reports, letters, e-mails – what you are after is clarity, not quality. You want your reader to get your point quickly and find the supporting evidence easily. Quality writing is about the subtle use of language, playing words off one another, and evoking emotion. All these things are the enemy of clear writing. The goal of your e-mail is not to generate a late-night drunken discussion about the perceptions of good and evil manifested in the portrayal of Boo Radley. It’s an e-mail.

Chris suggests “You might also consider a course in creative, non-fiction, journalism, or business writing.” For the love of God, please don’t. Take courses that demand you write, not courses that are about writing. Writing courses are generally taught by people who want you to “write well”, not “write clearly”. They are either good writers themselves, or are aspiring to be good writers. In pursuit of “good writing” they will tell you to do things that inhibit the clarity of your writing. Your goal is not to be Harper Lee, it is to be understood quickly and unambiguously. (If you *do* want to be Harper Lee, then you probably aren’t reading this blog).

As part of being a clear writer, please don’t ever use the “persuasive essay” format. This idea is pushed in writing classes, and should die painfully in a fire. Don’t tell the reader that you are going to tell them the information they need. Don’t tell the reader later on that you just told them the information they need. Just tell them the information they need. The “persuasive essay” format is suitable for speeches or presentations, but not for 99% of the writing that you will need to do.

The following tips for clear writing exist in some form all over the place, but keep them in mind:

  1. Your paper/report/email has too many paragraphs.
  2. Your paragraphs have too many sentences.
  3. Your sentences have too many words.

For pieces that are expected to be long (e.g. papers) the first point about paragraphs is crucial. I can almost guarantee you that if you lopped off the very first paragraph of you paper and dropped it down a deep well, no one would ever notice.

How do you get better at writing clearly?

  1. Write something.
  2. Shorten it.
  3. Show it to someone else and get their feedback.
  4. Goto #1.

You cannot skip the third step. Nothing clarifies your writing mind like the thought that someone else is going to read your work. You have to continually ask people what they think. This is the value of taking writing-intensive classes in college. You have a captive audience who actually *wants* (ok, feels obligated, but take what you can get) to read your writing. The professor in a subject-matter class is after clarity, not quality. Take their comments seriously.

I say all this as someone who spent a good fifteen years scratching and clawing his way from “vomiting word salad” to “making occasional sense”. The biggest step I took was in striving to write clearly, not well. I’ll let you know when I finally get there.

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23 thoughts on “Please Don’t Write Well, Write Clearly

  1. (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

    (ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

    (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

    (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

    (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

    (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

  2. I very much agree with the spirit of the distinction you are trying to make. Clarity of expression ought to be among the aims of all writing, regardless of length. Being told to cut one’s first draft by a third is almost always good advice–maybe especially so for academics.

    But I don’t think I would put it quite the way you do: as a choice between ‘good’ or ‘quality’ writing, on the one side, and ‘clear’ writing, on the other.

    Consider this bit of doggerel:

    I should have been a pair of ragged claws
    Scuttling across the floors of silent seas

    Is that unclear? Well, it doesn’t have the clarity of a good abstract in a professional journal article, nor of an effective user story in a software requirements document, nor of a good lede in a news story–itself something of a vanishing art, outside the sports sections.

    But calling that couplet unclear would seem off-base to me. On the contrary, it’s always struck me, in some moods at least, as terrifyingly clear. But (you might say) you don’t mean that kind of unclarity, exactly. Rather, it’s the writer’s intention that is unclear here.

    But is it? I think it’s fairly obvious that Eliot meant (whatever else) to arrest the reader’s attention, and to provoke a series of associations between this image and some of the facts of that reader’s inner life.

    Is the fact that the writer’s intention seems to include the eliciting of some kind of emotional response what we mean in wanting to call such writing ‘unclear’? In which case we’d want to say that it’s not so much the writing itself that is unclear, as our emotion-laden responses to it?

    Maybe. But how effective is, say, your average business email, when it evokes no emotion at all? It’s a fairly common part of the job of such communication to persuade others. And persuasion means eliciting identification (‘getting buy-in’ in standard business lingo).

    This is the traditional domain of rhetoric. If the effective business email doesn’t sound much like Marc Antony coming to bury Caesar, that may have more to do with the tropes appropriate to (likely to be effective in) that setting, than an actual absence of rhetoric. The Plain Style is also a rhetorical form.

    At Gettysburg, Edward Everett (a noted orator of the day) spoke for two hours. Lincoln spoke for about three minutes–including the wonderfully ambiguous line “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Lincoln was a master of the Plain Style.

    Having read far too many business emails for one lifetime, I can say with some confidence that their average effort at persuasion-identification often fails to achieve its aims. True, this is often due, in part at least, to lack of clarity. But I find that the unclear email is often badly written in other respects as well: overlong (or sometimes overly terse), unconvincing or unpersuasive, tonally inappropriate for some or all of its intended audience, etc.

    The result is often the calling of a meeting. A shocking number of business meetings are the result of bad business writing. As if our frail words need the support of gestures and glances to carry their message over whatever abyss they need to cross, to get to other people. And all to often, they do.

    • I wouldn’t call Eliot’s lines “clear”, but that’s just arguing about semantics.

      I agree that you can have clear writing that is also good writing (and you might call Eliot’s lines both), but one does not necessarily imply the other.

  3. My favourite writing aphorism comes from Elmore Leonard: I try to cut the parts people skip.

    Journalism classes can be useful. They can teach you how to cut out flannel

      • sadly Elmore’s rule is impossible to apply to academia and policy writing, mostly because you usually have to write for readers that have never encountered the topic/method before in addition to those who know it inside out already (even if my guess is that 99% of readers fall into the latter camp and habitually skip large sections)

  4. The best guide to writing clearly that I’ve read is Joseph William’s *Style: the Basics of Clarity and Grace* (later editions have slightly different titles). It’s short, but gives detailed advice at the sentence level, paragraph level, section level, etc. There’s also a longer textbook version that I haven’t read.

  5. I am a compulsive over-explainer. I continually forget that most people don’t care about the details of the proposal. All they care about is
    1) What will it do?
    2) How much will it cost?

    • Although, that explaining does need to be accessible somewhere. Maybe as an appendix, maybe as a brief mention of a supporting source, maybe an “ask me for further info” penciled in. If something is going to cost someone money, they might want a route for scrutiny.

  6. Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.” (http://www.npr.org/blogs/ombudsman/Politics_and_the_English_Language-1.pdf)
    He concludes:

    1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to
    seeing in print.
    2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of
    an everyday English equivalent.
    6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

  7. We have already have two commenters post a famous list of guidelines from an essay:

    1) whose own opening sentence is already in the passive unnecessarily;

    2) whose second sentence already goes on to talk about “the collapse” of civilisation, as if the author wasn’t used to seeing this tired metaphor in print;

    3) which, incredibly, even uses the passive unnecessarily in the very complaint that “the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active”;

    4) which is altogether more than 20% in the passive, much closer to (say) research articles in the natural sciences (around 20% to 30%) than to popular magazine or newspaper copy in English (from around 5% to a little over 10%);

    5) which unnecessarily uses several polysyllabic words such as “anaesthetize” and “scrupulous”;

    6) which suggests that the two parts of “not un-” somehow cancel each other out, as if “not absolutely unnecessary” meant the same as “absolutely necessary”;

    and so on.

    It’s no surprise, then, that working linguists have termed the essay “dishonest and stupid”, “shit”, “dishonest and rhetorically overblown”, “toxic … pompous and mendacious”, “intellectually dishonest and absurdly over-written”, and “hugely overrated”, while also agreeing with a professor of English who has called it “turgid, self-righteous and philosophically hopeless”:

    http://tinyurl.com/ozksvdx

    I might add that these linguists’ views on Strunk and White are roughly the same (“toxic little compendium of unfollowable dumb advice, bungled grammar claims, and outright mendacity”; “toxic and meretricious”; “vile little book of grammatical ignorance”):

    http://tinyurl.com/k52cys2

    But if you’re not in the mood for following up on all those Google hits, I can recommend one contributor’s “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”:

    http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497

  8. “3. Show it to someone…” And if you cannot do that, read it aloud to yourself as a poor second best.

    Ditching the first paragraph is a fine idea. I think of that first pp (or sometimes chapter!) as the stem of an apple. You needed the stem to grow the apple, but once you have the apple, you can throw the stem away.

    • Excellent advice. I tell my grad students to do that – you catch so many grammar errors trying to read out loud. I’ve done it on my own work.

      Good idea someone had was to have your computer read it back (Mac’s can do this natively, not sure on PC’s). You can hear grammar issues, wordy sentences, and other issues much easier than you can see them.

  9. Pingback: Links 1/13/15 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  10. USAF NCO Leadership School had a component called Effective Writing:
    Clear – Message must be understood by recipient.
    Correct – Clarity and Correctness go hand in hand, insure what you write is correct
    Complete – The message loses clarity if it is incomplete.
    Concise – The list is ordinal – If it is clear, correct, and complete, the benefit of conciseness means the reader will understand the message, have the correct awareness of the situation, and have enough information to make a decision, and will not respond with the “too long, didn’t read” that plagues this attention starved environment
    In the military environment, communication can be a life or death situation. In all my formal writing I use these principles

  11. Well, not so sure I should weigh in on this, but here goes: I strongly agree on the importance of clarity, accuracy, and non-misleadingness usually being vastly more important than “good style”. But I also put them — usually — a lot higher than brevity. Sometimes you can get more brevity, without sacrificing any, or much, clarity, accuracy, non-misleading, and worthwhile nuance, but often you can’t with the amount of writing time you have to work with. Too often one has to be sacrificed, and too often it’s the clarity, etc. for the sake of brevity.

    Of course, it depends on the situation, but often for important things it’s well worth making it a little longer to not cut out really important nuance, and to make it a lot less misleading, and a lot more clear.

    Here’s my opinion on these matters in a little more depth:

    http://richardhserlin.blogspot.com/2008/05/welcome-to-my-blog.html

    • Im with you in theory. But my own gut feel is that 85-90% of the time clarity and brevity go together. Obviously, knowing when you are in that 10-15% situation is the hard part.

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