Too much writing doesn’t do what it’s supposed to communicate. Writers often have other agendas which supersede communicating: they want to impress their readers with their vocabulary, or they believe they must follow some “official” style.
The Clear Writing Standard
Good writing transmits a clear message in a single, rapid reading and is generally free of errors in grammar, mechanics, and usage. This is also the Army writing standard.
If you want to meet this standard, write simply. Adopt a conversational style.
Write The Way You Speak
There are three ways to do this–use personal pronouns, use contractions, and use the active voice.
Personal pronouns make writing personal. Look at the two samples below.
- I’m responsible.
- The undersigned official assumes responsibility.
The first version is conversational and communicates rapidly. Do you know anyone who talks like the second version? Neither do we.
When you’re referring to yourself, use “I” or “me.” When referring to your group or company, use “we” or “us.” Use “you” for the person you’re talking to–just like you do in conversation. Also you should use the other personal pronouns such as “my,” your,” “yours,” “they,” etc.
Contractions are part of our everyday language. Use them when you write. Don’t force them in your writing, let them happen naturally. Negative contractions can be especially useful in softening commands and making it harder for the reader to miss your meaning.
Use the active voice when you write rather than the passive. If you want more information on active and passive voice, see Writer’s Guide Number 5.
Other Ways To Simplify Writing
Use jargon, including acronyms, carefully. Jargon and acronyms communicate only to those who understand them. Everyone else is lost.
If you’re in doubt, use everyday words (even if this means using more words), and spell out acronyms on first use. It’s better to use more words than confuse your reader.
Use simpler language. Why say “at this point in time” when you could say “now”? Is “utilize” really better than “use.”
Simpler is better.
Use The Help Available
Ask your co-workers. Show your material to someone who hasn’t seen it before. Ask them if the material is easy to understand. Ask them if you left anything out. The danger here is that friends and co-workers are sometimes reluctant to tell you what they really think. They don’t want to hurt your feelings.
Search out honest feedback and use it to improve your writing. Don’t take offense at what someone tells you because you’ll not get honest feedback anymore.
Another way to review your work is to set it aside for a while. Work on something else, and let your brain “cool off” on that subject. You’ll break the mindset you’ve been working with and be able to take a fresh look at the paper
The Clarity Index
The clarity index is a measure of the ease or difficulty of reading a piece of writing. The process is mechanical and objective.
- Take a sample of the writing (not over one page) and count the number of words.
- Count the number of sentences.
- Divide the number of words by the number of sentences. The result will be the number of words per sentence.(words /(divided by) sentences = words per sentence)
- Count the number of long words (three or more syllables) in the sample.
- Divide the number of long words by the total number of words to get the percentage of long words.(long words /(divided by) total words = percent of long words)
- Finally, add the words per sentences and the percentage of long words. The sum is the clarity index.
(wps + percent of long words = clarity index)
The target clarity index is 30. If your clarity index is below 25, your writing is probably choppy. If the clarity index is over 35, most people will have difficulty reading it rapidly.
Since the clarity index is based on the length of words and sentences, you can raise the index number by combining sentences. By joining sentences, you will not only smooth out the choppiness but also show a better relationship between ideas.
Likewise, to lower the number, use shorter, simpler words and break up long sentences.
As you can tell, the process of running a clarity index is time-consuming. You won’t have time to run one on every piece of your writing.
But, on those occasions when a piece of writing (yours or someone else’s) seems particularly hard to read, try running a clarity index. Chances are the index will be off one way or the other.