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, says Joe Hight, Managing Editor, The Oklahoman.

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Find 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 of each:

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."

Simplicity means:

  • Using subject-verb-object whenever possible.
  • 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."

Understanding means:

  • 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 to translate.
  • 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 parts."

All of these quotes emphasize the need to draft, then polish.

Polishing means:

  • 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.

Caring means:

  • 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.

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