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Some Principles of Clear and Direct Writing
There follow a few guidelines for concise, readable writing. These
guidelines are not iron-clad rules: there are occasions and audiences
for which writing should be more complicated, even slightly more
difficult to follow.
- Principle 1: Use SUBJECTS to name your main characters.
Subjects of sentences should be the characters involved in the
passage. Characters are not just people. The term means whatever
you can tell a story about by making it the subject of a lot of
sentences. But the clearest sentences have characters that are
people or concrete objects that you can name in a word or two.
For the following examples, notice how 1b reads more clearly than
1a. (The one word SIMPLE SUBJECTS are italicized within the WHOLE
SUBJECTS which are underlined. Verbs are boldfaced.):
1a.) The Federalists'
argument that destabilization of government was the
result of popular democracy was based on their belief in the tendency of self-interested
groups toward sacrificing the common good for their own narrow
1b.) The Federalists argued that popular
democracy destabilized government,
because they believed that
self-interested groups tend to sacrifice the
common good for their narrow objective.
Keep your subjects
short and concrete, naming your main characters.
This method works even if the main characters are abstractions
instead of people. For example:
2a.) Few aspects of human behavior have
been so difficult to explain as rational thinking.
Rationality depends on a range of short term behaviors, such as
to a hasty conclusion or action, having the patience
to gather evidence, and the ability to bring together evidence
in support of claims. But perhaps the hallmark
of human rationality is the capacity to think about thinking, to reason
to reflect on the quality of the thinking that assembles
those reasons and claims into an argument.
To avoid long, indistinct subjects, you can usually
revise such sentences by recasting their abstract
subjects around flesh-and-blood
2b.) Psychologists have found it difficult
to explain what we do when we behave rationally.
We think rationally when,
in the short run, we do not jump to hasty conclusions,
but instead patiently gather evidence, and bring evidence and reasons together
to support claims. But we are perhaps most rational
when we reason about our reasoning, when we reflect on how well we thought when we assembled our reasons and claims into an argument.
- Principle 2: Use verbs, not nouns, to name those characters'
actions. (Avoiding nominalization: turning verbs
Once readers get past a short, concise subject, they
look for a verb that expresses a specific action.
The sooner they find
the clearer they judge the sentence to be. Compare
the verbs (boldfaced) in the following two examples:
destabilization of government was the result
of popular democracy was based on their belief in the tendency
of self-interest groups
toward sacrificing the common good for their
1b.) The Federalists argued that popular democracy destabilized government, because they believed that self-interested groups
tend to sacrifice the common good for their narrow
The only verbs in 1a, was and was based, are
empty. The verbs in 1b express action: argue,
believe, tend, sacrifice.
The actions in 1a are hidden in abstract nouns.
1a.) The Federalists' argument that destabilization of
government was the result of
democracy was based on their belief in the tendency of self-interest groups toward sacrificing the
common good for their narrow objectives.
These nouns that are derived from verbs are called
nominalization. Writing that feels highly professional
and abstract almost always
has lots of these abstract nominalizations. But
using these nominalizations as subjects causes
to have weaker verbs instead of
the stronger ones it could have used, and it
also requires adding extra prepositions and articles.
* Use verbs to communicate actions; do not bury
actions in abstract nominalizations, especially
Match key elements in
sentences -- subjects and verbs -- to key elements
in your story -- characters and actions.
For more on characters and actions, click here.
For more on nominalizations, click here.
- Principle 3: Get to a verb quickly. (Sometimes we call
this principle "short
The chunk of the sentence before the main verb is called
the "topic" position.
Readers generally expect clear, familiar information
in the topic position.
Contrast the following sentences: (Whole subjects
are underlined; simple subjects are italicized;
main verbs are boldfaced):
Parents who believe that school uniforms would
solve most of the discipline problems in our
schools argue in favor of
many others who fear that government already
intrudes too much into our private lives object.
1b.) Some parents argue that school
uniforms would solve most of the discipline problems in
but many others object because
they fear that government already intrudes too
much into our private lives.
The principle of quickly getting past a subject
to a verb implies three subordinate ones:
-Principle 3A: Avoid long introductory elements before a subject.
Readers do not want to work through wordy introductory phrases
before they get to the main subject and its verb.
It is most effective to start a sentence directly with the
- Principle 3B: Keep whole subjects short.
This principle connects to our first one, to make subjects distinct
characters, because distinct characters usually
have short names.
- Principle 3C: Avoid interrupting subjects and verbs with long
phrases and clauses.
When readers do not see a verb right after a
subject, the sentence is probably more difficult
than it has
to be. Shift an interrupting
element to the end or beginning of its sentence,
depending on where it fits better. Compare the
2a.) Some scientists,
they write in a style that is so impersonal and
objective, do not communicate with lay people
2b.) Some scientists do not communicate with
lay people easily, because they write in a style
is so impersonal and objective.
For more on short to long, click here.
-Principle 4: Begin sentences with information that is
familiar to readers. (Sometimes we call this
principle "old to new.")
This principle has the same effect as the first
three. It lets readers build up momentum in
but it depends less
on the grammar of the sentence than on the
psychology of its reader.
We read more easily when we start with simple
and familiar information and then build up
to new and
complex information. Compare:
1a.) Particular ideas toward the beginning
of sentences define what sentences are "about." The
cumulative effect of a series of repeated subjects
a passage is
so our sense of coherence depends on subjects
of sentences. Moving through a paragraph from
of view occurs when
a series of subjects seems to constitute a
coherent sequence. A seeming absence of context
is one consequence
making random shifts in subjects. Feelings
of dislocation, disorientation, and lack of
occur when that
1b.) As we read, we depend on the subject of
a sentence to focus our attention on a particular
tells us what
is "about." In a series of sentences,
we depend on repeated subjects to cumulatively
usthe topic of
we feel that a series of subjects is coherent,
then we feel we are moving through a paragraph
coherent point of
But if we feel its subjects shift randomly,
then we have
to begin each
sentence out of context, from no coherent point
of view. When that happens, we feel dislocated,
out of focus.
Most of us have a problem with (1a) that we
do not have with (1b). Each sentence in (1a)
long abstract subjects
that to us is newer and less familiar than
the information at the end of those sentences.
how to begin a
implies how to end it.
For more on old to new, click here.
- Principle 5: End a sentence with long and complex units of
Information at the end of the sentence makes
more of an impact on readers. We call the
end of the
sentence the "stress" position.
- Principle 6: Keep your subjects consistent. Avoid beginning
several sentences in a row with unrelated
subjects. (We sometimes describe
the beginnings of sentences as "topic strings.")
When sentences in a series all begin differently,
we are likely to judge the passage to be
unfocused, disjointed, even disorganized.
More consistent subjects make reading easier.
Be careful not to vary subjects randomly,
them to just a few different
For more on topic and stress, click here.
Principle 7: Announce the point (the subject and sub-claim)
of your paragraph within the first few sentences
of a paragraph. (We describe the beginnings of
paragraphs as "issues" and
the rest as "discussion.")