Writing clear, elegant prose is a skill that takes a great deal of practice for most of us. But it’s a skill that readers appreciate, if only because so much writing we see every day is so poor.
Sentences that choke on jargon, tortuous constructions and puffed-up vocabulary all play their part in making a piece of text ugly and—more importantly—harder to understand than it need be. Unfortunately, this style of writing is so common that many people think it’s the proper way to write, believing that if they find a particular piece of writing difficult to understand the cause is their lack of brainpower rather than the writer’s inability to express ideas clearly.
Anything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly.
Of course, some writers deliberately inflate their prose to make their ideas appear more important or more complex than they really are. Either way, it’s writing designed to exclude the reader—an odd attitude when the very purpose of writing is to communicate ideas, opinions and information.
There are a number of principles that we try to follow here at Modis Design as we aim for clarity and elegance in our writing. Some are elementary while others may seem esoteric, but applied consistently they can help us communicate to our readers clearly, and hopefully with style. Here are some of the most important ones.
In general, use active sentences rather than passive
Active sentences like, The police patrolled the area are more direct and therefore generally easier to understand than passive sentences such as, The area was patrolled by the police. Although the passive has its place in the language, if your sentence contains identifiable subjects doing things, it’s usually better to express it actively.
Prefer descriptive verbs to weak verbs with nominalizations
Many verbs can be expressed as nouns, such as “intention” for the verb “intend.” If this is the main action in the sentence, say something like, The company intends to invest in green technologies rather than, It is the intention of the company to make investments in green technologies. It’s both shorter and clearer.
Get quickly to the main verb in a sentence
Sentences such as this one, which contain several subordinate clauses that we have to slog through before we get to the main verb—probably the most important part of a sentence—do not make life easy for the reader. Readers prefer sentences that have a clear subject followed closely by a verb (like this one).
Writing “at the present moment in time” when what you really mean is “now” is not only excessively wordy, but sounds clunky and possibly pompous too. Watch for sentences that contain repeated meaning or obvious implications such as, More than at any other time in the past, people fly by plane when going abroad. (meaning: When traveling abroad, more people fly than ever before.)