here for Exercises on Pargraph and Sentence Level
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 objectives.
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 rationalthinking. Rationality depends on a range of short term behaviors, such as not jumping to a hasty
conclusion or action, having the patience to gather evidence, and
the ability to bring together evidence and reasons in support of
claims. But perhaps the hallmark of human rationality is the capacity
to think about thinking, to reason about reasoning, to reflect
on the quality of the thinking that assembles those reasons and
into an argument.
To avoid long, indistinct subjects, you can usually revise such
sentences by recasting their abstract subjects around flesh-and-blood
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 into nouns.)
Once readers get past a short, concise subject, they look for a
verb that expresses a specific action. The sooner they find one,
they judge the sentence to be. Compare the verbs (boldfaced) in
the following two examples:
1a.) The Federalists' argument that
of government was the result of popular democracy was
their belief in the tendency of self-interest groups toward sacrificing
the common good for their narrow objectives.
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 objectives.
The only verbs in 1a, was and was based, are empty. The verbs in
1b express action: argue, destabilize, believe, tend, sacrifice.
The actions in 1a are hidden in abstract nouns.
1a.) The Federalists'
argument that 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 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 the writing to have weaker verbs instead of
the stronger ones it could have used, and it also requires adding
prepositions and articles.
* Use verbs to communicate actions; do not bury actions in abstract
nominalizations, especially in subjects. Match key elements in
sentences -- subjects and verbs -- to key elements in your story
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
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
problems in our schools argue in favor of them, but
many others who fear that government already intrudes too much
into our private
1b.) Some parents argue that school
uniforms would solve most of
the discipline problems in or schools, but many others object because
they fear that government already intrudes too much into our private
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
start a sentence directly with the subjects.
- 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 following:
2a.) Some scientists, because
they write in a style that is so impersonal and objective, do not
communicate with lay people easily.
2b.) Some scientists do not communicate with lay people easily,
because they write in a style that 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 a sentence, 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
build up to new and complexinformation. Compare:
1a.) Particular ideas toward the beginning of sentences define
what sentences are "about." The cumulative effect of
a series of repeated subjects indicates what a passage is about,
so our sense
of coherence depends on subjects of sentences. Moving through
a paragraph from a consistent point of view occurs when a series
seems to constitute a coherent sequence. A seeming absence of
for sentences is one consequence of making random shifts in subjects.
Feelings of dislocation, disorientation, and lack of focus occur
when that happens.
1b.) As we read, we depend on the subject of a sentence to focus
our attention on a particular idea that tells us what that sentence
is "about." In a series of sentences, we depend on
repeated subjects to cumulatively tell usthe topic of a whole
we feel that a series of subjects is coherent, then we feel we
are moving through a paragraph from a coherent point of view.
we feel its subjects shift randomly, then we have to begin each
sentence out of context, from no coherent point of view. When
we feel dislocated, disoriented, and out of focus.
Most of us have a problem with (1a) that we do not have with
(1b). Each sentence in (1a) starts with long abstract subjects
that to us is newer and less familiar than the information at
the end of those sentences. This principle of 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.
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
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
subjects randomly, but limit them to just a few different characters.
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.
the beginnings of paragraphs as "issues" and the rest as "discussion.")