One of the biggest challenges all writers face is the daunting task of learning to write clearly.
Without clarity, it doesn’t matter what your ultimate purpose is for writing because readers will be unable to figure out what you’re trying to say. You want people to understand your ideas rather than spend their time trying to understand your sentences. The need for clarity applies no matter what you’re writing, whether it’s an email, a blog post, a newspaper article, or an academic paper.
The 8 KIS Principles for Clarity in Writing
I’ve developed a series of 8 principles to help guide writers to greater clarity. I call them KIS Principles, meaning Keep It…Simple, Succinct, Short, Straightforward, Soulful, Snappy, Sound, and Sensible. Below you’ll find a brief explanation of each KIS principle:
KIS1: Keep It Simple
One way to do this is to write as if your audience were children. It’s important to have this standard in mind at the beginning of any writing project to lay a solid foundation for clarity. Another way to keep it simple is to define your topic idea as clearly as possible from the beginning. Make sure you have a good thesis statement and then use it like a filter to let in only the information that supports your thesis statement while keeping out anything that doesn’t.
KIS2: Keep It Succinct
Please see my previous article, The Art of Brevity: How to Improve Writing When Adverbs Get in the Way. It provides an introduction to the importance of brevity in writing along with some specific advice about a few of the more bothersome adverbs that plague many writers.
KIS3: Keep It Short
This one is focused on the length of your sentences. When your sentences are too long, readers get lost in the sentence and lose track of the point you’re trying to make. You might deceive yourself into thinking that longer sentences are a sign of depth or artistry. Nothing could be further from the truth. Long, unfocused, meandering sentences are more likely to be a sign of unclear thinking. Examine your sentences and see if there is a way to write each one using fewer words. This can feel tedious, but the payoff in clarity is worth the effort.
KIS4: Keep It Straightforward
You’d better avoid ambiguity. Hinting at your point is no good. Ambiguity does not facilitate understanding. I could come up with more ways to say this, but I think you get the point. Figure out what it is you’re trying to say and then write it as clearly as possible.
KIS5: Keep it Soulful
That may sound strange, but what I mean by this is staying true to the purpose for which you’re writing. You may be writing for any number of reasons, such as to express yourself, to entertain, to communicate, to be understood, to enlighten, to thrill, to challenge, or any other number of reasons. They still all depend on the reader understanding what you’re trying to say, which means you first need to be clear about the message you want your writing to convey. Whatever your ultimate purpose, make clarity a primary goal.
KIS6: Keep it Snappy
The way to do this is to come up with a great title for your piece. Unlike the thesis statement mentioned above, that serves as a filter for what information you include in your writing, the purpose of a snappy title is a promise to the reader for what they’re going to get by taking the time to read your writing. Think of your title as a headline that will instantly convey why people should read your writing. Once again you can use this snappy headline as a filter to bring in only that information that helps fulfill the promise your title makes to readers. Make it bold, informative, eye-catching, and short.
KIS7: Keep it Sound
Read out loud what you’ve written. Does it sound like something you’d actually say? If not, it probably also lacks clarity. Some people seem to think that the act of writing requires a different kind of language than how you speak. That’s when writing becomes too wordy, full of flowery expressions and stilted, formal language. You’ll do much better if you write like you talk. Of course, it still needs to be grammatically correct, so perhaps I should say write like you talk, only better.
KIS8: Keep it Sensible
It’s surprising how often people allow redundancy to creep into their writing. The best way to illustrate this is with several examples, such as the following: Past history (history is in the past by definition), terrible tragedy (the alliteration is nice, but if it’s a tragedy, then it’s obviously terrible), foreign imports (if something is imported, it’s clearly foreign), pink in color (pink is already a color by definition), and screaming loudly (a screaming person is clearly being loud). How many others can you think of? Coming up with your own list will help train your brain to recognize them when they sneak into your writing, and then you can eliminate the redundant part of the phrase.
During my master of science in management program, I wrote a paper about different approaches to leadership. It contains some examples that show violations of the KIS principles. Take this passage for example:
It should be noted that each of these “challops” deserve much more depth in their examination than the scope of this paper can afford. What follows are just the beginnings of a much larger project.
It should be noted is unnecessarily wordy, making the first sentence longer than it needs to be (KIS3). Much more is redundant (KIS8) in the context of the first sentence. In general, the passage feels like I was trying too hard to sound “academic.” My point was to put a limit on the scope of the paper. I could have accomplished that with something like the following:
Although an in-depth examination of each “challop” is beyond the scope of this paper, a brief overview sets the stage for further study.
Making that revision turned a two-sentence passage of 35 words into a single sentence of just 23 words, a 34% reduction. In another example, instead of writing Each of the approaches in Northouse’s book has valuable insights to contribute to the field, I could have written Each approach described by Northouse contains valuable insights. That simple revision cut the sentence nearly in half, from 15 words to 8, and sounds much better when read aloud (KIS7).
Learning to write clearly takes constant practice, but it’s worth the effort. Keeping the 8 KIS Principles in mind as you write will send you in the right direction.