Tips for clear writing

Tips for clear writing

First look up the four most important parts of speech under grammar.

Now you know the four most important types of word, you’ll want to know how to put that knowledge to good use. Our first tip is to avoid what we call “nounitis”.

Avoid nounitis

This is a disease that affects many organisations, and its main symptom is an excessive reliance on nouns to carry the meaning of sentences. This is usually compounded by the use of weak verbs and abstract nouns. So instead of writing: 

Subject (pronoun)


Object (noun)



a house

nounitis-sufferers write like this:

Subject (noun)


Object (noun with compound adjectives)

ABC Global Ltd


a significant domicile-construction project.

Nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs can be single words or whole phrases. In the example above “significant domicile-construction project” is a noun phrase (test it – it works in exactly the same way as a single noun) and “significant domicile-construction” is an adjective phrase describing the noun, “project”.

OK, so that was a somewhat exaggerated example, but here is an example from a document:

We are keen to achieve a significant modernisation and relaxation in the eligibility rules…

 If we use verbs instead of nouns, this becomes:

We want to modernise and relax the eligibility rules…

The version with more verbs is simpler, and easier to understand. So this guide’s message is clear: use more verbs and fewer nouns, and you will take your readers with you much more easily. 

Keep the subject and verb together – and keep them simple

Sentences are easiest to understand when the subject is at the beginning immediately followed by the main verb (see the reference section for an explanation of what a main verb is). If you separate them, or if you make either of them too complex, then the sentence becomes much more difficult for the reader to cope with. Here’s an example:

Publication of information on the proportion of cases which have been resolved through non-enforcement action and where firms have been given credit for adopting a co-operative approach would aid transparency.

 The verb here is “would aid”. (The main verb is “to aid”, “would” is an auxiliary verb – see the reference section for an explanation.) However, the reader has to wait until three words before the end of the sentence to find that verb – navigating a 27-word noun phrase first. To solve the problem, we need to find a simple, specific subject. “Transparency” is too abstract – we can’t imagine transparency. “Publication” is also abstract. The most specific, imaginable subjects are people and animals, followed by groups of people, such as companies, countries and organisations. So the obvious solution is to introduce the pronoun “we”.

We would be more transparent if we published information on the proportion of cases which have been resolved through non-enforcement action and where firms have been given credit for adopting a co-operative approach.

It is still a bit dense, but at least the reader knows what it’s about from the beginning.


Make your sentences active, not passive

This is a passive sentence (taken from a document):

            Such an outcome would be welcomed by the FSA.

“Such an outcome” is in the position where you would normally expect to find the subject of the sentence. But the true subject is the FSA. The sentence would be simpler and truer if it said:

            The FSA would welcome such an outcome.

Here are some other examples of passive sentences, with active equivalents:



Your security pass should be returned

You should return your security pass

The following issues were identified

We identified the following issues

If a claim is found to be exaggerated

If insurers find that a claim is exaggerated

In each of these examples, the passive construction has allowed the writer to avoid saying who is taking action. People often do this in order to avoid taking responsibility, to avoid being specific, or simply out of habit.

The best reason for using a passive is to keep the focus on the person or organisation under discussion. For example, if a section of your report is all about a company called Insuraco, you might write “Insuraco was investigated by the FSA” rather than “the FSA investigated Insuraco” in order to keep the focus on Insuraco rather than the FSA. The only other situation in which it can be useful is when you just don’t know who did something: “While he was queuing, his wallet was stolen.” Otherwise, in almost every case, the active is best.


Use full sentences and punctuate clearly

A full sentence has a subject and a verb, begins with a capital and ends with a full stop. Your writing will not seem polished and professional unless it consists of full sentences. Writing that isn’t in full sentences is in note form. This is easy to slip into, especially in emails, minutes and other internal documents, but it can be difficult to understand. It can also seem lazy, and will give a poor impression of your company if it goes to outsiders. It is always easy to turn note-form sentences into full ones. For example:

            Report to be completed end October 2006.

            The report should be completed by the end of October 2006.

Punctuating clearly boils down to following the rules, which are set out in the reference section (see “punctuation” in the reference section). Behind all the rules, the basic principle is to avoid ambiguity. If you don’t supply punctuation, you force your readers to do your job, and they may not do it as you wanted them to. Without your guidance, the paragraph before last might turn into this: “A full sentence has a subject. And a verb begins with a capital and ends. With a full stop, your writing will not seem polished and professional. Unless it consists of full sentences, writing that isn’t in full sentences is in note form.”

If you construct your writing in relatively short, direct sentences, marked out with capitals at the beginning and full stops at the end, you should not need to use much more punctuation to make yourself clear. Commas and apostrophes are easy to master once you know the rules (again, see the reference section). Dashes are very useful, but must never be confused with hyphens – which are also useful, but entirely different. Add colons (to introduce lists), and you could write well for your entire career without ever needing any other punctuation.

Break down long, complex sentences

Writing long, complex sentences often makes people feel very clever. Unfortunately, it very seldom makes them look clever. Long sentences tend to be more difficult for the reader to understand – that is, they require more concentration to understand. Since you will often be writing for tired, stressed and uninterested readers, you cannot allow your message to depend on someone else making the effort to concentrate. The other problem with long sentences is that they are much more difficult for the writer to manage, and will often lead you to make mistakes.

If you follow the advice we’ve already given in this chapter, your sentences will naturally become shorter. However, if you still find that your sentences are too complex and difficult to follow, you’ll need to break them down. The way to do this is by looking for the simpler thoughts within them.

Here’s a fairly typical example:

To the extent that there would be less governmental or regulatory backing to such contracts, the need for precision and long duration of contracts to ensure profitability are even more important.

Here the basic shape of the sentence is: “To the extent that [element 1], [element 2] is even more important.” There are two common problems here:      

  1. The shape of the sentence itself is flawed: “even more important than what?” the reader wonders. “To the extent that” is also difficult to follow.
  2. The two elements within the sentence are so long and complex that they are difficult to understand while keeping the rest of the sentence in mind.      

The trick here, as with all long, complex sentences, is to throw away the shape and turn the elements into sentences of their own.

Element 1 is “there would be less governmental or regulatory backing to such contracts”. This is clear, except for a couple of minor points: governmental can lose its “al” and the backing is “for” rather than “to” the contracts.

Element 2 is more complicated: “the need for precision and long duration of contracts to ensure profitability”. Again though, this can be broken down. The aim in this part of the sentence is clear enough: “to ensure profitability”. And we can improve the rest of it by getting rid of some of the nouns, as we did in the “nounitis” section earlier: “contracts need to be precise and of long duration”.

Now we’ve stripped the elements out of the constrictive sentence shape, they make sense: 

There would be less government or regulatory backing for such contracts. To ensure profitability, the contracts need to be precise and of long duration.

And, reading through it again, there are a few phrases that we can make simpler, and a bit of repetition that we can avoid. Once we’ve done this, we can even link the two sentences to make the relationship between them a little clearer and more natural:

There would be less government or regulatory backing for such contracts, so they would have to be precise and long-term to be profitable.

The point is that long sentences are not automatically bad. They can be good, so long as each part of them is simple, and they don’t force the reader to hold a lot in mind. The secret of improving them is the same as the secret of improving all writing: give your readers one thing at a time and make each individual element as clear as you possibly can. It is all a question of untangling.



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