In my previous article, I presented 8 KIS principles to keep in mind for greater clarity in your writing. Now it’s time to translate those into specific, concrete tactics for making sentences and paragraphs as clear as possible. This article will focus on 6 tactics for clearer writing. They are as follows:
1. Use active voice sentences.
This doesn’t mean you should never use the passive voice, but it’s generally better to keep things active because it helps the reader avoid confusion. Times, when you may opt for passive voice, is when you want to emphasize the action more than the actor, or when you don’t know for sure who the actor is. Think of the difference between active and passive voice in relation to who is doing what in the sentence. In the active voice, the subject clearly performs the action. In the passive voice, the subject is the recipient of the action. Here’s a very basic example to show the difference:
- Passive: The sentence was written by the author using passive voice.
- Active: The author wrote the sentence in active voice.
If you’re composing your written piece using Microsoft Word and your automatic spelling and grammar check is turned on, the first (passive) sentence will probably be highlighted with the wavy green underlining. If you run the spelling and grammar check, it will tell you that the sentence is flagged because it is in the passive voice. It’s up to you whether or not to accept what Word suggests. I find it tends to do some strange things in helping you switch from passive to active voice. In my 2011 Word for Mac, here’s what it suggests:
- The author using passive voice wrote the sentence.
Needless to say, I wouldn’t want to go with that suggestion. I find it very awkward. I think what I provided as the active example above is much better.
How do you convert a passive sentence into an active sentence? Well, that depends on how the passive sentence was written. Whenever you’re looking for your writing and you see the word “by,” take a closer look at that sentence to see if it is in the passive voice. If the subject of the sentence comes in a phrase with the word “by” in it, chances are it’s in the passive voice. Notice how in the example above the subject (the author) is kind of buried in the “by” phrase (by the author). To convert this sentence to active voice, you take the subject out of the by phrase and put it closer to the beginning of the sentence so that the subject can clearly perform the action. Notice how in the active version of the sentence, the subject starts the sentence and is immediately followed by the action being performed. What I don’t like about the suggested revision from Word is how it would still have too much “distance” between the subject and the verb by having the “using active voice” phrase in between the two.
2. Let verbs carry the action.
Many writers fall prey to nominalization, which means turning verbs into nouns. Indications you’re prone to this include using “be” too frequently or taking a verb and adding “-ion” to the end of it. Writing is more interesting and engaging when the action is clear and unambiguous. Below are some examples of nominalizations highlighted in italics.
- An evaluation of each team member’s performance needs to be done.
- Each team member’s performance needs to be evaluated.
Depending on who the subject is that needs to do the evaluation will determine how to revise the sentence into a more active format. Below are a couple of options:
- Please evaluate each team member’s performance.
- We need to evaluate each team member’s performance.
3. Restrict wordy phrases.
You’d be surprised at how many wordy phrases can easily be replaced by a single word. Any time you can use fewer words is a good thing – the art of brevity and the art of clarity go hand-in-hand. Look at the following examples:
- the reason for
- for the reason that
- due to the fact that
- owing to the fact that
- in light of the fact that
- considering the fact that
- on the grounds that
- this is why
Each of the above phrases could be replaced by a single word such as because, since, or why. Here are some others to watch out for:
- despite the fact that
- regardless of the fact that
- notwithstanding the fact that
The above phrases could also be replaced by single words such as although, even, or though. Many times we use wordy phrases out of habit, and other times they sneak into writing because you’re trying to vary how you say things. That’s not a bad thing, but when wordiness gets in the way of simple, clear writing, then it’s time to put wordy phrases on a diet, even if it means repeating the same word.
4. Cut back on wordy verbs.
The same applies to verbs that can become wordier than they really need to be. Check out the following examples and how to fix them:
- Not so good: All of those things are indications of a deeper root cause.
- Better: All of those things indicate a deeper root cause.
- Not so good: Don’t you think Michael is aware of the hotel’s price?
- Better: Don’t you think Michael knows the hotel’s price?
5. Limit prepositional phrases.
When sentences are cluttered with too many prepositional phrases, clarity is impaired.
- Not so good: It is a matter of extreme importance to the future of all human beings with a concern for the health of the planet that activities resulting in the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere be greatly reduced.
- Better: Anyone interested in the long-term health of the planet should reduce CO2 emissions.
Some writers also have a tendency to show possession by using a prepositional phrase rather than making use of the apostrophe. Ditch the prepositional phrase and use the apostrophe instead! Here’s how it works:
- Not so good: The opinion of the professor is that writing should be clear.
- Better: The professor’s opinion is that writing should be clear.
6. Reduce expletive constructions.
Whenever you read one of your sentences and it begins with it is, there is, or there are, take a closer look at it. If the word that or this also appears in the sentence, you’ve probably got an expletive construction that should be revised. Check out the following examples:
- Not so good: It is inevitable that inflation will rise.
- Better: Inflation will inevitably rise.
- Not so good: There are likely to be many employees raising questions about this new policy.
- Better: Many employees will likely question the new policy.
As you can see, increasing the clarity of your writing is not difficult, but it does take some effort. Using the six tactics outlined above will make your writing clearer.
And don’t forget to use Unicheck to make sure your writing is original.