Achieving Clarity, Sentence by Sentence
Cheyenne Franklin, consultant
An instructor once told my class that the greatest criticism a writing can receive is that it is unclear. Although clarity does not come from any one formula, there are some tips that can help you get your message across clearly and keep you from writing the complicated texts we all hate.
1. Keep the real subject in the subject slot.
English is an SVO language. This means its basic structure runs Subject, Verb, Object. Sometimes we alter this structure to add variety, but generally readers look for the subject first and then the verb. When we provide these pieces quickly and in this order, readers are better able to focus on the message of our sentence.
Two types of structures can lose a sentence’s subject:
Passive Voice: The text was confused by the unnecessary passive voice.
Revision: The unnecessary passive voice confused the text.
You can find more information about passive voice here.
False subject there: There were two kids fighting at school.
Revision: Two kids fought at school.
In the first version of this sentence, there occupies the subject position right before the verb were. Two kids is the real subject though. The revision forms a clearer sentence with the true subject in the subject slot.
2. Cut deadweight words.
Certain valueless words enter our speech without our even realizing it. In our writing, where we have time to edit, we should always cut life-sucking deadweight that distracts from the sentence’s valuable parts.
Wordy: I believe the results clearly show obesity is a very real problem for each and every one of us, regardless of age.
Revision: I believe the results basically show obesity is a very real problem for each and every one of us, regardless of age.
Although the struck-out words seem to add intensity to the sentence, they don’t add any real meaning. In addition to overcomplicating the sentence, they weaken the statement because they appear to be trying too hard.
3. Write in manageable doses.
If a sentence extends to three lines or more, it has lots of commas/conjunctions, or contains strings of prepositions or which/that, look to see if you have stuffed too many ideas into one sentence. Just because a sentence is long, doesn’t mean it needs to be divided, but it is a good indicator. It’s good to combine ideas in a single sentence when showing a relationship between those ideas, but you need to give each idea its own attention first. This means giving each idea its own space.
Dense Sentence: If the chemicals combine, they can produce a toxic fume which can harm a human and might even kill plants and animals, presenting a serious risk and outweighing the good that such chemicals could provide in the home.
Separate ideas with connection following: If the chemicals combine, they can produce a toxic fume. This fume can harm a human and might even kill plants and animals. These dangers present a serious risk and outweigh the good that such chemicals could present in the home.
The revision splits the complicated sentence in places where which, and, or a comma was present.
4. Use the Old-New structure
The old-new structure involves both sentence and paragraph structure. It clearly strings together related ideas or steps by reusing key terms. Sentences begin with a term used in the preceding sentence (the old) and connects it to the next idea (the new). The sample sentence showing the revision of a dense sentence demonstrates this structure.
Old-New: If you turn to your right, you’ll see a yellow envelope. In that yellow envelope, you’ll find a note, and that note will give you your next instructions.
The repeated words yellow envelope and note serve as landmarks that orient readers and show connections between the old and new information. Notice that when a term is repeated, you usually place the word that/this before it.