Fixing the Flaws in the
10 Principles of Clear Writing
by Philip Yaffe
I recently did an Internet search
for “clear writing” and frequently came up with the same
list of “10 principles of clear writing”. Each one is a piece
of very good advice; however the list has two faults.
First, I am viscerally suspicious of all 10-item lists. They seem
contrived. It’s as if the writer decided that any self-respecting
list should have 10 items, then set about inventing them to meet
the challenge. More importantly, these 10 principles of clear writing
are not really principles at all, but rather tips and technique.
What’s the difference? Tips and techniques tell you what to do;
principles tell you why you are doing it.
Understanding why you are doing something, i.e. the benefit
you will gain, helps ensure that you will actually do it and do
it consistently. Too often when we are told only what to do, we
follow the instruction half-heartedly, inconsistently, or not at
For example, my last year at the University
of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I tutored writing to make a bit
of much-needed cash. One day a first year student came to me with
a note from a professor, saying: “Young lady, I advise you either
to leave my class immediately or prepare to fail it.” I concluded
that she was misapplying a fundamental writing principle, so I explained
it to her and had her do a few simple exercises to be certain she
understood it. By the end of term, her almost certain “F” had shot
up to a gratifying “B”.
This was not an isolated case. When
students were having writing difficulties, it was generally because
they were: 1) unfamiliar with a fundamental principle, 2) inconsistently
applying it, 3) improperly applying it, or 4) not applying it at
I am a marketing communication consultant, after having been
a newspaper editor, a writer with The Wall Street Journal, and European
marketing communication director for two major international companies.
Over my 40 year career, I have been continually appalled by how
poorly top business executives, academics, researchers, and other
clearly intelligent people express themselves, both in writing and
Some years ago I tried to analyze this depressing phenomenon. As
a result, I defined three key principles that underlie virtually
every kind of expository (non-fiction) writing and speaking. To
give them strength and substance, I cast them in the form of quasi-mathematical
formula. As formula, these principles not only tell you what to
do, they also tell you why you are doing it and how to go about
I would first like to briefly explain these three principles, then
see how they coincide with lists of tips and techniques that masquerade
as principles. Most people accept that a good text should
be “clear” and “concise”. There is a third principle that is seldom
mentioned. A good text should also be “dense”.
Being clear is not a matter of personal
appreciation. Do you find your text clear? You should; after all,
you wrote it. But how can you be certain that it will be clear to
According to the clarity principle, to be clear you must do three
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, before you start writing you must first
determine what is of key importance, i.e. what are the key ideas
you want your readers to take away from your text?
This is not always easy to do. It is far simpler to say that everything
is of key importance, so you put in everything you have. However,
unless you do the work of defining what you really want your readers
to know, they won't do it for you. They will simply get lost in
your text and either give up or come out the other end not knowing
what they have read.
Next, as you write your text, you must be certain to de-emphasize
what is of secondary importance. Why? Because if you really want
your 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
Finally, you must ruthless eliminate what
is of no importance. Why? Because any information that
adds nothing to explaining and supporting the key ideas will tend
to obscure them, which is exactly the opposite of what you want.
According to the conciseness principle,
your 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; in
the abstract the terms “long" and "short" have no
meaning (so-called “weasel words”). 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
Density is a less familiar concept
than clarity and conciseness, but is equally important. According
to the density principle, you text should contain:
1. Precise information
2. Logically linked
In other words: D = PL
Using precise information rather than wishy-washy weasel words in
a text 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 you really know what you are talking about.
This helps to hold the reader’s attention and makes it easier to
get your points across. However, precise data (facts) by themselves
are insufficient. To be meaningful, data must be organized to
create “information”. There are two important tests to apply when
converting data into information.
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 eliminated.
The logical link between data must be made explicit to prevent the
reader 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,
To ensure that a logical link is clear, place the two pieces of
data as close to each other as possible, preferably right next to
each other. When data are widely separated, their logical link is
masked. If you don’t make the logical connection, it is unrealistic
to expect readers will do so for themselves.
Keeping these true principles - clarity, conciseness, density
- firmly in mind allows us to re-evaluate the oft-quoted ten
“principles” of clear writing” (i.e. tips and techniques), thereby
making them significantly more meaningful, and significantly more
Keep Sentences Short This is
usually interpreted to mean an average sentence length of
15 - 18 words. Not because readers can’t handle longer sentences.
However, when length rises above this average, sentences are
likely to be poorly constructed, thereby damaging clarity.
But remember, 15 - 18 words is an average. Don’t shun longer
sentences. A well constructed long sentence is often clearer
than two or more shorter ones. Why? Because the longer sentence
betters shows the logical linkage among the various elements,
which would be lost by splitting it apart.
2. Prefer the
Simple to the Complex If the precise word is long, don’t
hesitant to use it, because not using it would damage clarity.
On the other hand, if a shorter word would do just as well,
prefer it. Examples: “dog” rather than “canine”, "change"
rather than "modification", "entrance” rather
than “ingress”, etc.
3. Prefer the Familiar Word This is just a variation
of point 2. If you have a choice between two words, use the
one that most people are likely to recognize and use themselves.
Examples: “insult” rather than “imprecate”, “daily” rather
4. Avoid Unnecessary Words
In other words, be concise.
5. Use Active Verbs
In an individual sentence, whether you use an active or a
passive verb is of little consequence. However, over an entire
text it becomes very important. Active verbs tend to enhance
clarity; conversely, too many passive verbs tend to damage
6. Write the
Way you Speak This is a very
useful technique, but don’t take it literally. When we speak,
we generally use simpler vocabulary and sentence structures
than when we write. Writing the way you speak is a good way
to produce a first draft. However, when we speak, our sentence
structures are often confused and our vocabulary imprecise.
These faults must be rigorously corrected in the second, third
or later drafts.
7. Use Terms your Reader can Picture
In other words, be dense. Use specifics; avoid weasel words.
When making a general statement, be certain to support it
with concrete data.
8. Tie in with your Reader's
Experience We are again talking
about density, i.e. using precise information. Be certain
that the terminology you chose is compatible with your readers’
experience. If you need to use a word not likely to be familiar
to your readers, define it the first time it appears. If it
is really key, define it again later on in the text. Also
be wary of words that look familiar but have a very different
meaning in the context of your subject.
Example: “Insult” is medical jargon for an injury or trauma.
However, talking about an “insult” to the heart without first
explaining this unconventional meaning of the word is likely
to leave your readers scratching their heads.
9. Make Full Use of Variety
This suggestion is almost superfluous. If you conscientiously
apply the three writing principles of clarity, conciseness,
and density, you will almost automatically introduce variety
of sentence length and structure into your text.
Avoid introducing too much variety of vocabulary. Constantly
changing terminology for the sake of variety damages clarity.
If several words mean essential the same thing, pick one or
two of them and shun the others. Introduce equivalent terms
in such a way that the reader clearly understands they mean
the same thing.
Example 1. (Confusing) Manned space travel to Mars is
once again being considered. The Red Planet has fascinated
mankind for centuries. The “God of War” is the fourth planet
from the sun - our own Earth is the third - and it is our
closest celestial neighbor except for the moon.
2. (Clear) Manned space travel to Mars is once again being
considered. Popularly known as the “Red Planet”, Mars has
fascinated mankind for centuries. Being the forth planet from
the sun (Earth is the third), it is our closest celestial
neighbor except for the moon.
10. Write to
Express, not to Impress
The purpose of expository (non-fiction) writing is to inform
or instruct, not to show off your literary prowess. The fact
is, the better you write, the less people are likely to notice.
And this is how it should be. The reader’s full attention
should be on what you are saying, not how you are saying it.
Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street
Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He currently teaches
a course in good writing and good speaking in Brussels, Belgium.
His recently published book In the “I” of the Storm: the Simple
Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost) like a Professional is
available from Story Publishers in Ghent, Belgium (storypublishers.be)
and Amazon (amazon.com).
For further information, contact: Philip Yaffe, Brussels,
Belgium Email: [email protected]