it is incorrect to call them "criteria", because
they are more than that. They are fundamental principles in
the form of formulas that provide step-by-step instructions
for producing recognizably well written texts, whatever the
format or subject.
If you are the originator, they tell you:
1) How to write your text in the first place
2) How properly to edit it when you have finished
If you are the critic, they tell you:
1) What the text should contain
2) What needs to be done to improve it
Before looking at them in detail, let's first agree what we
mean by a well written text. For most people, it has at least
two principal characteristics; it must be both "clear"
and "concise". Unfortunately, both of these
are "weasel words". They mean different things to
different people, as well as different things at different
times. This is why we need quasi-objective test, to be certain
that these words will mean essentially the same thing to all
people all the time.
There is a third aspect of a well written text called "density",
for which we also have a quasi-test.
to the Clarity Principle, to be clear a text must do
1. Emphasize what is of key importance.
2. De-emphasize what is of secondary importance.
3. Eliminate what is of no importance.
In short: Cl = EDE
If you follow the formula, when you evaluate a text
(yours or someone else's), the first thing you should
look for is: Do the key ideas fully stand out?
Key ideas are the concepts and conclusions the writer wants
the readers to take away from text. Too many writers shy away
from the hard work of defining the key ideas. It is far simpler
to say that everything is of key importance, so they put in
everything they have. However, unless the writer does the
job of defining what he really wants the readers to know,
they won't do it for him. They will simply get lost in your
text and either give up or come out the other end not knowing
what they have read.
Second, check that the text de-emphasizes everything that
is of secondary importance. Why? Because if you want readers
to recognize and retain the key ideas, then you don’t want
them getting lost in the details. Details (information of
secondary importance) explain and support the key ideas; they
must never overwhelm them. Finally, you must ruthlessly eliminate
everything of no importance. These are bits of information
that are neither a key idea nor explain or support a key idea.
Nothing in is neutral. Whatever doesn't add to the text, subtracts
from it. And so must be deleted.
According to the Conciseness
Principle, a well written text should be as:
1. Long as necessary
2. Short as possible
In symbols: Co = LS
"As long as necessary" means covering all
the key ideas you identified under “clarity”, and all the
information of secondary importance needed to explain and
support them. Note that nothing is said here about the number
of words, because it is irrelevant. If it takes 500 words
to be "as long as necessary", then 500 words must
be used. If it takes 1500 words, then this is all right, too.
"As short as possible" means staying as close as
you can to the minimum. Not because people prefer short texts.
"Long" and "short" are weasel words;
in the abstract they have no meaning because what is "long"
in one circumstance is "short" in another.
The important point is: All words beyond the minimum tend
to damage clarity. Subconsciously, readers will continually
be trying to understand why those words are there. And will
be continually failing because they serve no purpose.
"Density" is a less
familiar concept than clarity and conciseness, but it is equally
important. According to the density principle, a text should
1. Precise information
2. Logically linked
In other words: D = PL
Using precise information rather than wishy-washy weasel words
aids clarity. For example, if you say it is a “hot” day, what
do you mean? One reader might interpret hot as 24° C while
another might interpret is as 36° C. However, if you say the
temperature outside is 28° C, there is no room for interpretation
-- or misinterpretation.
Using precise information also generates confidence, because
it tells the reader that the writer really know what he is
talking about. This helps to hold the reader’s attention and
makes it easier to get key points across. However, precise
data (facts) by themselves are insufficient. To be meaningful,
data must be organized to create “information”.
two important tests to apply when converting data into information.
Relevance Is a particular
piece of data really needed? As we have seen, unnecessary
data damages clarity and ultimately confidence. Therefore,
any data that do not either aid understanding or promote confidence
should be rigorously deleted.
The logical link between data must be made explicit to prevent
readers from coming to false conclusions. Example: A singular
occurrence may be misinterpreted as part of a broad pattern;
a general policy may be misinterpreted as applying only in
specific circumstances, etc.
To ensure that a logical link is clear, the two pieces of
data should be placed as close to each other as possible,
preferably right next to each other. When data are widely
separated, their logical link is masked. If the writer doesn't
make the logical connection, it is unrealistic to expect readers
will do so for themselves.
So there they are -- three fundamental "acid tests"
for clear, concise, dense writing. Although quasi-objective,
these tsts are not a panacea. They require you to think; in
fact, they force you to think. And that is their strength,
because they guide your thinking to precisely what you should
be thinking about.
To repeat the adage at the beginning of this article:
"If you don't know what you are looking for, you are
unlikely to find it, even if it's right in front of your nose."
Now you know.