How to Write Clear English: Jargon, Short Sentences and More
Most guides to writing well will give you the advice to write clearly and avoid jargon.
But figuring out exactly what that entails can be trickier. What constitutes clear writing? Is it short, snappy sentences? Words of Anglo-Saxon origin rather than French or Latin? Do you need to have an etymological dictionary to hand to be able to write clearly?
When you consider jargon, it gets even harder to decide. There’s a fine lifne between abbreviations that avoid repetition, or a technical term that precisely fits your need, and jargon that alienates readers who don’t share the same technical background. The comic writer Randall Munroe created a tool that highlights any word used that is not in the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language. If we rewrite the first two paragraphs of this article in order that all of them are among the 1,000 most commonly used, we get the following:
“Most people telling you how to write well will tell you to write clearly and avoid the words that people only use when they need to for their jobs.
But figuring out exactly how to do that can be harder. What is clear writing made of? Is it short, quick sets of words followed by a full stop? Words that come from the language used in the country this was written in rather than the language used across the sea to the south or the language used in the country where the men who were really good at fighting came from long ago? Do you need to have a book that tells you where words come from to hand to be able to write clearly?”
It’s fun to consider these things, but I don’t think anyone would argue that the above paragraph is clearer. Here are our actionable tips on making your writing clear, direct and easy to understand.
1. Think about your audience
Let’s think about the classic bit of advice, to use words of Anglo-Saxon origin in preference to words that come from French or Latin (or indeed, from any of the other hundreds of languages from which English has borrowed words). So you might have been advised that it’s clearer to ask people to “fill in” a form, rather than “complete” it. “Fill in” comes from solid Anglo-Saxon fyllan, you see, whereas “complete” comes from Latin via medieval French and is therefore over-complicated and undesirable.
This is probably quite good advice if you’re writing for an audience of people who have English as a first language. But what if you weren’t? There are vastly more non-native English speakers than native English speakers out there, so it’s more likely you’ll be writing for non-native speakers than those who have English as their mother tongue. The French for “complete” is compléter. The Spanish is completar. The Portuguese is completar. The German, admittedly, is ausfüllen and the Dutch is vullen, but their populations are dwarfed by those whose languages are derived from Latin.
Additionally, “fill in” is an example of a phrasal verb – one of the nastiest bits of English grammar for non-native speakers. There’s no logical way of working out that you fill in a form, rather than filling up a form or filling through a form. For anyone whose first language doesn’t use verbs and prepositions in this way, “complete” is an order of magnitude more straightforward.
Any time you’re trying to write clearly, don’t think “what is clear to understand?” but “what is clear for my audience to understand?” For one audience, “Katie Hopkins is a columnist for the British tabloid newspaper The Sun and is known for courting controversy” will be entirely clear. For another, “Katie Hopkins is the Rita Skeeter of British journalism” will get to the point much quicker.
2. It isn’t always clearer to use fewer or shorter words
Compare the same item on three restaurant menus:
- Burger on a brioche bun with mature cheddar, salad leaves, tomato and gherkin.
- 6oz minced Angus steak formed into a patty on brioche with 3 years matured Cornish Cruncher, romaine lettuce, beefsteak tomato and cornichons.
The first uses the fewest words, and the least complicated ones. And that tells you something in its own right. Whichever the restaurant is that’s serving this cheeseburger, it knows you know what to expect. It’s probably a bit cheaper than the other two.
The second one is arguably the clearest. There are very few words in there that you might not understand (perhaps “broiche”) and the list is phrased in a way that suggests it is comprehensive. You don’t know the type of beef or the type of cheddar, but you can predict pretty closely what will be appearing on your plate.
The third provides a lot more detail. Now you’ve been told the type of beef and the type of cheddar, but you have to know that Angus steak is made of beef (rather than an unfortunate man named Angus) and that Cornish Cruncher is a cheddar. Both could be guessed, but it’s also quite possible that you wouldn’t be able to tell what meal to expect from ordering this. And all of this leaves aside the fact that restaurant customers will consistently pay more for a meal that is described with more words.
Some people would certainly look at the second or third option and say, “why can’t they just call it a cheeseburger?!” So think about the type of clarity that you want to achieve.
3. Shorter sentences are only helpful up to a point
Shorter words aside, what about shorter sentences? Using shorter sentences is a classic tip for making your writing clearer – something that makes sense if you imagine starting with the following:
Having seen Richard II, Shakespeare’s masterpiece about the king usurped by Henry Bolingbroke, who then appears in the play’s sequel as Henry IV, Elizabeth I was horrified, as she was, at the time, greatly fearing the safety of her own throne, and so saw herself as Richard II – and allegedly was heard to have said so by contemporary sources – and therefore perceived the performance of the play as a coded threat against her, which indeed it may have been.
But this would hardly be an improvement:
Shakespeare’s Richard II is a masterpiece. It’s about Richard II being usurped by Henry Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke appears in the sequel to Richard II. In that play, he is Henry IV. Elizabeth I was horrified when she saw Richard II. She was very fearful for her own throne at the time. When she saw Richard II’s usurpation, it reminded her of her own fears. According to contemporary sources, she said as much. She saw the performance of the play as a coded threat against her. That might well have been the intent.
While the very short sentences make the writing clearer for the first line or two, after that it becomes quite hard to concentrate – and if your reader can’t concentrate on what you’re saying, writing clearly doesn’t help. As ever, a mixture of longer and shorter sentences is the answer, using words like ‘however’ and ‘therefore’ to enable your reader to understand the relationship between the points you’re making.
4. Cliches are conversational shorthand
Orwell famously advised that a good writer should “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” If you want to seem like a bright, original writer then this may be good advice. But being original and being clear do not always go together – in fact, more often than not they are in opposition. The opening of Finnegans Wake (“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs”) is highly original.
Think of a few clichés. There are the ones that Orwell lists – Achilles’ heel, melting pot, acid test – but you might wish to go for something more evocative and wordier, like ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’. These phrases might not be beautiful, but if you know them, and most people well acquainted with the English language will, then they are very clear. Imagine an essay: “James Bond is suave, intelligent and extremely skilled, but as ‘Casino Royale’ makes clear, beautiful women are his Achilles’ heel.” Now try to rewrite that without using the phrase “Achilles’ heel.” “As ‘Casino Royale’ points out, beautiful women are the one particular weakness of a man who in general is known for his lack of weaknesses.” It’s not exactly an improvement.
If you’re writing for an audience that will recognise the clichés you are using and clarity, rather than beauty, is your goal, then by all means use the clichés that will help you be understood. Sports metaphors are much criticised, but they are still used so often because they genuinely do aid clarity. “Management have moved the goalposts, but guys, we’ve been knocking it out of the park lately so now is not the time to drop the ball, we can still go the distance on this one.” Or to put it another way, “the management has changed the terms on which our performance will be assessed, but we have been exceeding our targets significantly in the past while, so we shouldn’t do less work now because we can still succeed and beat the targets.” The latter is cliché-free, but was it actually easier to understand – especially given that it’s rare to use four metaphors in a row?
5. Jargon has its place
It is deeply irritating to use technical jargon for a non-technical audience. If you are writing to entertain, it can sometimes be amusing to include a word or two that you think may be likely to send your reader expeditiously to the dictionary. But if you are aiming for clarity, using inappropriate jargon only transfers effort from you to your reader.
You could say, for instance, “this copy needs to be rewritten so it has a stronger CTA” – but if your reader doesn’t know marketing jargon, they’ll have to figure out what you mean by ‘copy’ (where the definition you mean is likely to be third or fourth on the list) and realise that CTA, in this context, doesn’t mean central travel area, copyright transfer agreement or cellulose triacetate. All of that could amount to ten minutes’ work for your poor reader, and you could have saved them the trouble simply by saying, “this text needs to be rewritten so that what the reader should do next is clearer.” At the same time, if you were to say that to a marketing professional, they might wonder why you didn’t just tell them that the CTA needs to be stronger. (It means ‘call to action’, by the way).
Remember also that there is some jargon that a non-technical audience can be expected to understand. Whether they’re tech-savvy or not, pretty much everyone will understand what you mean by cookie, hotspot or gif, and will probably find the expanded version much less clear. “You need to give them permission to save small pieces of data onto your computer to speed up browsing later on.” “What, you mean like a cookie?” Similarly, the political jargon of POTUS, deficit, landslide or swing is generally used without the need for explanation.
This is not to say that all jargon is desirable. A widely quoted report from the Government Equalities Office contains the following (not cherry-picked; almost all of it is this bad):
“The overarching insight provided by this report is that public policy design and delivery stand to gain a great deal from the accumulated evidence regarding how people make choices, however properly informed or beneficial these are or are not. Carrying on assuming that people follow rationale incentives without deflection is an unrealistic and unwise thing to do. Therefore, it makes sense to sensitise our policy design to take account of this knowledge.”
Anyone wishing to practise writing clearly might want to have a go at simplifying that.
Do you have any tips for writing clearly? Let us know in the comments!
image credits: banner steamy window,clear water and text, audience, cheeseburger, Shakespeare, raining cats and dogs, jargon