Is it Possible to Write "Clearly and Simply"?
The task of writing clearly and simply has never been either clear or simple. In fact, it can be one of the most difficult of all writing tasks. Clear and simple writing is an art to which many aspire and few achieve. Even so, the understandability of web content depends upon clear and simple writing. Unclear or confusing writing is an accessibility barrier to all readers, but can be especially difficult for people with reading disorders or cognitive disabilities.
"My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way."
"Unless one is a genius, it is best to aim at being intelligible."
--Anthony Hope Hawkins
Language and cultural differences matter. To complicate matters, the "rules" of clear and simple writing in English may not apply at all in other languages, or even between cultures that speak the same language. Many English-speaking countries value directness and explicitness in written communication. Other cultures feel that this style is too blunt, and perhaps even insulting to readers.
Despite the difficulties in defining the meaning of "clear and simple" writing, the suggestions in this section may still benefit writers of web content. The suggestions serve as general guidelines for writing clear and simple English, primarily from an American English perspective. Those who write in other languages should seek resources that apply specifically to those languages.
Cognitive abilities matter. Not everyone reads at the same level or has the ability to understand text content, even when presented clearly and simply. Reading disorders, memory disorders, attention deficit disorders, and other conditions which affect the brain's cognitive processes can compromise a person's ability to benefit from text. The guidelines presented below will improve readability for many people, but not for all.
The guidelines presented here are not a complete list, nor do they apply to every situation, but they are a good starting point. Writers who take these guidelines seriously are more likely to write clearly and simply.
1. Organize your ideas into a logical outline--before and during the writing process
This may be the most important guideline of all. You have to think clearly about a topic in order to communicate it clearly. The organization process is ongoing, starting before any words are written and continuing throughout the entire process. There is nothing wrong with reorganizing a paper as you write it. When you think you're finished, take the opportunity to analyze it one more time to see if the organization still makes sense to you. If it does, great! If not, try again!
Here are some thoughts by accomplished writers about the need to organize ideas:
"If any man wishes to write in a clear style, let him first be clear in his thoughts."
--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
"Writing comes more easily if you have something to say."
2. Tell the readers what you're going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them
The formula to follow is to begin with an introduction, or overview of the paper's ideas, explain the ideas in the main body of the text, then summarize or review the ideas at the end.
3. Stick to the point
The more you stray from your main point, the less likely people will be to remember it.
4. Make it interesting
Capture the attention of your readers by including relevant details that motivate them to continue reading.
Here are some thoughts by famous individuals about the importance of making things interesting:
"If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing."
"Imagination is more important than knowledge."
"What we want is a story that starts with an earthquake and builds to a climax."
5. Write for your target audience
You should write differently for a classroom of first-graders than you would for a committee of post-graduate scholars. In addition, you should take into account people's areas of expertise, even if they have the same level of education or intelligence. Cultural and gender differences can also play a role in defining a target audience. As you write, keep your audience's characteristics in mind and write accordingly.
6. Assume that your readers are intelligent, but do not assume that they know the subject matter as well as you
The amount of explaining you need to do depends upon how familiar your audience is with the topic. Explaining concepts is not insulting; it is helpful, as long as the explanations show that you respect the reader. Some people with cognitive disabilities may need more explanation than others, but when you write for general audiences, assume a general level of intelligence.
Some experts say writers should aim for "eighth grade level" writing. It is difficult to determine for sure what this means. Many popular magazines, such as Readers Digest and Ladies' Home Journal are written at about this level. News sources such as Newsweek are written at a slightly higher level, approximately 10th grade.
7. Write cohesive paragraphs constructed around a single major idea
All of the ideas in a paragraph should relate back to the main point. If possible, put the main idea of the paragraph in the first sentence.
8. Avoid slang and jargon
Slang and jargon can be useful to people who understand it, but confusing to people who don't.
9. Use familiar words and combinations of words
Writers should strive to communicate with their readers, not impress readers by using uncommon or showy words.
10. Use active voice
Passive voice weakens the action of a sentence by distancing the action from the subjects performing the action. Active voice links the subjects directly with the action.
11. Avoid weak verbs
Writers often use the verb "to be" (is, are, was, were) when more active verbs may be more appropriate. Over-use of the verb "to be" often forces writers to use the passive voice more than necessary. The verb "to be" suggests passivity because it connects two entities that are essentially equal. The phrase "A is B" essentially means "A equals B." The relationship between A and B is static. In contrast, other verbs--such as "to improve," "to clarify," "to modify," or "to destroy"--imply more of a dynamic relationship between A and B.
12. Use parallel sentence construction
Make sure that the sentence construction is consistent within itself.
13. Use positive terms
Emphasize the way things are, were, will be, or would be. To the extent possible, avoid the use of don't, didn't, and other words that structure a sentence from the perspective of the way things are not, were not, will not be, or would not be.
14. Give direct instructions
Direct instructions can increase comprehension and place more of a sense of responsibility on the reader.
15. Avoid multiple negatives
Most readers find double negatives, or multiple negatives, a bit awkward, which can lead to confusion, or at least to slower comprehension.
16. Avoid acronyms and abbreviations if possible; explain all acronyms and abbreviations
Unfamiliar acronyms and abbreviations mean nothing to readers. Expanding acronyms and abbreviations allows readers to learn their meaning. This is especially true the first time, or the first few times, an acronym or abbreviation is used.
17. Check the spelling
Use an automated spell checker, but also proof-read the document for correctly spelled words that are used incorrectly.
18. Write short sentences
Readers tend to lose the main point of long, run-on sentences. Help readers stay focused by creating shorter sentences.
"Good things, when short, are twice as good."
19. Ensure that every word and paragraph is necessary
"Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."
--William Strunk, Jr.
20. When you're finished, stop
Say only what you need to say.
Additional Considerations for Users with Reading Disorders and Cognitive Disabilities
All of the writing guidelines discussed above will improve the chances that users with reading disorders or cognitive disabilities will understand the text. Nevertheless, these guidelines will be insufficient for some users, especially for those who read poorly, or who cannot read at all. Text content will always pose problems for these users. Some of the recommendations most relevant to people with cognitive disabilities are the following:
- Supplement the text with illustrations. The most drastic--and perhaps the most useful--solution for these audiences is to provide illustrations as alternatives to the text, or at least as enhancements of the textual content. In other words, do everything possible to clarify and simplify the text, then go one step further by supplementing the text with illustrations.
- Reduce text to a bare minimum. Pages with a large amount of text can intimidate users with reading difficulties. For this audience, the less you say, the better.
- Be as literal as possible. Some people with cognitive disabilities have a hard time distinguishing between the literal meaning of ideas and implied meaning. Sarcasm and parody can be especially confusing for some people.
How Can Writers Know if They Have Achieved Clarity and Simplicity?
Strictly speaking, writers cannot know for sure whether their writing is truly "clear and simple." No matter how well writers think they have explained a concept, some of the readers will almost always misunderstand.
Algorithms, such as the Gunning Fog Index, Flesch Reading Ease Index, and Flesch-Kincaid Index attempt to evaluate the readability or reading level of text content. Such algorithms appeal to some experts because they are based on clear-cut mathematical formulas. The tests produce measurable results. Unfortunately, the tests' emphasis on quantitative (numerical) accuracy can mislead writers into thinking that achieving clear and simple writing is a well-defined, formulaic process, when it is not. The algorithms themselves are somewhat questionable too, since they use such superficial criteria as the number of syllables, the number of words, the length of sentences, etc, all of which are indirect measures of readability, at best.
Users of Microsoft Word can evaluate written content against the Flesch Reading Ease scale and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scale within the word processor itself. Word also provides a percentage count of passive sentences (the lower the percentage the better).
To activate this feature in Word, go to themenu, click , then click on the tab. Select the check box and the check box, and then click OK. To use the feature, go to and let Word run through the document for spelling and grammar errors. At the end of this process, a dialogue box will pop up showing the readability score.
Other sources of software-based readability evaluators include:
Also, an online readability test using the Fog index is available from Juicy Studios.
Although readability tests are only a superficial measure of true readability, they can at least provide some basic feedback and give authors a general idea of how readable their documents are.
It is not easy to write clearly and simply, but it is important to try. Users are more likely to understand your writing if you take the time to organize your thoughts and write them in the clearest, simplest form possible, taking into account your audience. To maximize understandability for people with cognitive disabilities, limit the text, add appropriate illustrations, and avoid indirect or implied meanings (such as sarcasm or parody). In the end, nearly everyone benefits from clarity and simplicity.