any story to succeed -- for you to succeed -- clarity becomes
vital. The path to clarity is riddled with obstacles, but we
can overcome them through simplicity, understanding, polishing
and caring. Each element is related and plays a role in clear
writing, says Joe Hight,
Managing Editor, The Oklahoman.
the Clear Path
Without clarity in
every sentence of your story, you lose.
You lose what creativity
you've used to write your story. You lose meaning because you can't be
understood. You lose what time you took to write the story. You lose respect
from peers. You lose readers because they don't have time to interpret
the meaning of your words and sentences.
So for any story to
succeed -- for you to succeed -- clarity becomes vital.
The path to clarity
is riddled with obstacles, but we can overcome them through simplicity,
understanding, polishing and caring. Each element is related and plays
a role in clear writing.
Here are summaries
Poor writers try to impress by being complex instead of simplifying their
sentences and paragraphs. They fear that someone will ridicule them for
being too simplistic.
But Paula LaRocque,
author and writing coach, writes, "Good, clear writing is neither
dumb nor oversimple. And unclear writing (unless also written by the unintelligent)
is self-indulgent if not arrogant. The truth is that the best writers
are and always have been the clearest writers -- from Winston Churchill
to Albert Einstein to Carl Sagan. They've learned that knowledge isn't
worth much if we can't convey it to others."
- Using subject-verb-object
- Using active verbs.
- Reducing complicated
words into single-syllable or simple terms.
- Using specific
details instead of general terms. Concrete over abstract.
- Keeping sentences
short but pacing them with a variety of lengths.
- Avoiding long backed-in
clauses that only delay the subject.
- Using too many
statistics that tend to confuse. Or too many prepositions. LaRocque
recommends no more than three statistics or prepositions per sentence.
A religious song titled "Prayer of St. Francis" has the following
verse in it: "To be understood as to understand." The line should
become a theme for anyone writing a newspaper story.
In their "Secrets
of Great Writing," journalism professors Maureen A. Croteau and Wayne
A. Worcester list understanding as one of their 20 tips.
"You can't write
what you don't understand. If you don't know what you're talking about,
nobody else will either. You can parrot information, drop in some quotes
and produce something that looks like a story. But if you don't understand
what you're writing about, no one else will."
- Translating jargon
into terms that readers can understand. Avoid excessive use of bureaucratic
terms or try to explain those that must be used. Avoid cliches that
limit understanding. Avoid journalese -- writing that speaks in terms
that only a journalist can understand.
- Using quotations
that are understandable to readers. How many times have you read a quote
that's filled with so many parentheses, cliches or jargon that it's
difficult to understand? Most are from reporters who fail to clarify
or paraphrase quotes that are incomprehensible. Many longer quotes seem
to come from tape recorders. But tape recorders aren't the problem.
It's reporters who are so worried about transcribing that they forget
- Limiting the use
of acronyms, except those that are commonly used. Mary Goddard, the
late writing coach for The Oklahoman, gives this advice for anyone writing
stories or headlines: ``Would the first 10 people polled at a McDonald's
know instantly what these letters stand for?''
Most writers should know Ernest Hemingway's famous words "Prose is
architecture, not interior decoration." Or Mark Twain's: "The
difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference
between lightning and a lightning bug." Or William Strunk Jr.'s:
"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary
words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that
a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary
All of these quotes
emphasize the need to draft, then polish.
- Ensuring names
are spelled correctly. The math is correct. The facts don't conflict.
(Sure, good writers make mistakes, but they learn from them and then
strive to prevent them.)
- Pruning words like
the best hedge trimmer. Searching for dangling or misplaced modifiers.
Rewriting to prevent double meanings. Carefully trimming away the excess
until creating a precise work.
- Eliminating the
complex. Award-winning journalist Sarah Fritz calls it selection. She
said good reporters, especially those who are investigative, are storytellers
who select what is understandable and throw out material that is trivial
or can't be understood.
- Finding better
ways to self-edit. Reading sentences out loud. Talking with other reporters
about complicated sentences. Working with editors to trim and edit --
and editors working with reporters.
This is most important element in seeking clear writing. Caring that you've
done your best work and caring for the readers of that work.
- Using simplicity,
understanding and polishing to create powerful writing.
- Seeking brevity
so the readers get no more than what they need to read.
- Establishing a
focus in the story. From the lead to the end, a focus on organizing
your story to provide information that the reader should know.
- Providing meaning.
Donald Murray, a writing expert and columnist who won the Pulitzer Prize
for editorial writing in The Boston Herald, distinguishes between a
reporter and a writer. He says in "Writer in the Newsroom"
that writers and reporters both have goals of accuracy, simplicity and
clarity. But the writer reveals meaning between pieces of information.
The writer "collects accurate, specific, revealing pieces of information
and constructs each draft by building firm, logical patterns of meaning.
The writer is master of the craft of reporting -- and the craft of writing."
- Hard work. "Writing
is hard work," author William Zinsser writes. "A clear sentence
is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or
even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find
that writing is hard, it's because it is hard. It's one of the hardest
things people do."
Combined, these elements
-- simplicity, understanding, polishing and caring -- produce clarity
in your work. They also produce outstanding stories.
In your stories, they prevent you from losing.