You want to be known for clear writing, but you’re not sure how to go about it.
Jane Rosenzweig, director of the Writing Center at Harvard, presents three tips in her Harvard Business Review article, “3 Ways to Make Your Writing Clearer.” They’re so beautifully simple that I wish I could take credit for them.
Here they are:
“Cut the ‘Since the dawn of time’ opening and get right to the point.”
I remember a meeting where our manager was at pains to tell another writer that he needed to dive right into his topic and skip the friendly intro. I also remember being glad I wasn’t on the receiving end of those remarks and feeling fortunate because my predilection at that point in my career was to start a piece with a nice, fluffy lead-in.
Ms. Rosenzweig, who presents wonderful examples in her article, says, “In most cases, your readers don’t need to hear every thought anyone has ever had about your topic. They need to know what they should think about the topic right now.”
Focus your reader’s attention by getting to your point in the first sentence and include only important background info as you develop your topic.
“Turn those descriptive topic sentences into topic sentences that make claims.”
A claim sentence tells readers what to expect in the rest of the paragraph and, of course, focuses their attention. A descriptive sentence can offer useful information, but as Ms. Rosenzweig points out, readers don’t know why it matters. A claim sentence helps you as a writer, because you know what you have to deliver. A claim-based topic sentence also means that you’ll need to do less editing.
“Make sure people are doing things in your sentences, unless you don’t want them to be doing things.”
Here, Ms. Rosenzweig is saying that you need to be clear about who is taking action. As an example, she offers these two sentences:
“All managers should approve and submit expense reports by Friday at noon.”
“Expense reports should be approved and submitted by Friday at noon.”
The first sentence makes it clear who should do what, that is, “all managers.” The second sentence, not so much. The active voice clarifies who takes action. The passive voice can be very helpful in obscuring the actor; you may want to consider using it when circumstances warrant. Consider that much-used expression: “Mistakes were made.” Wikipedia notes that it is “an expression that is commonly used as a rhetorical device, whereby a speaker acknowledges that a situation was handled poorly or inappropriately but seeks to evade any direct admission or accusation of responsibility by not specifying the person who made the mistakes.”
The reason I like this article so much is that it calls attention to the tendency of many a writer—myself included—who wastes precious time in our deadline-driven world making minor word- and sentence-level edits instead of clarifying the message from the get-go. This, says Ms. Rosenzweig, is pretty much like “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”