A Case for Clarity

15 Steps to convey ideas through simple, clear and focused writing

As a former military brat and spouse, and current friend and vendor, I consider myself conversational in acronym and “government speak” — that convoluted and awkward form of language used in the military and other branches of the federal government.

The government is full of writing examples that make me cringe. This is my plea for clarity in 15 quick steps:

  1. Use verbs. They are the strongest words in the English language. They do the heavy lifting. Look for the strongest verbs you can find and eliminate the need for filler words. Strong verbs don’t need help.
  2. Let verbs be verbs. Don’t make other words verbs. They won’t be as strong. Please, just don’t.
  3. Use the strongest verbs that make sense. People do not “interface” — computers do. It is also best if people do not implement, leverage or dialogue. These are weak, ineffective verbs. You can do better than that.
  4. Do not turn adjectives into verbs. I have heard it happen and it never should. Not ever. Please. I beg of you.
  5. Let nouns be nouns. Do not make or use gerunds, which are verbs acting as nouns. (Do you see a trend here? The rule is to stick to the parts of speech as designated in the dictionary. Don’t mix them up randomly. It doesn’t work and it weakens your writing and infuriates readers like me.)
  6. When in doubt, use a dictionary. Non-word usage is on the rise. Call them buzz words or whatever you like, but if it is not in the dictionary, it’s still wrong. Consult Webster’s or the Oxford English Dictionary. Even then, avoid the exceptions — those words that have been altered because of rampant misuse. These are clearly marked as altered definitions. For example, reticence means “reluctant to speak” but has been used as a synonym for “reluctant” enough that the OED included it as an alternate definition. This weakens our language and I beg of you to steer clear.
  7. Don’t obfuscate when you can blur, muddle, complicate, or confuse. Use the simplest word that conveys what you are trying to say. Clarity is the goal, not impressing with an expansive vocabulary. Read Hemingway if you need a primer on writing simply.
  8. Eliminate adjectives and adverbs. If your nouns and verbs are strong, there is no need to “rigorously disentangle.”
  9. Remove extra words. You do not need to “take a moment to consider” when you can “consider.” Do not say: “I want to thank…” when you should thank the person. Rarely do you need the word “that.”
  10. Mix up your words. Do not string 15 nouns together in a row. It does not read well and screams “I am official but do not make sense — stop reading now.” This includes unnecessarily long titles. Use a subhead to break a long title into smaller, more comprehensible parts.
  11. Use shorter sentences. Don’t make your readers slog through never-ending sentences, even if they are grammatical. Keep them to a reasonable length and focus on the verbs. If you cannot diagram the sentence, don’t write it (for those of you who remember diagramming sentences. If you do not, I recommend Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog by Kitty Burns Florey).
  12. Avoid jargon or trendy words. Buzz words exist to convey ideas easily, but too often they pose as content without any real details or substance. Opt for real words when possible.
  13. Do not buy into the lie that it is not “proper” government writing without the linguistic acrobatics. Bureaucratic writing is not more effective or official. Good writing is always the best option. Besides it is the law since enactment of the Plain Writing Act of 2010.
  14. Keep it active. Sentences and actions require a subject. Passive voice is popular in government writing because it removes the culpable party (“Mistakes were made”). The problem is that passive voice also diminishes the action and energy of what you are saying. When you edit your work (as you should), delete all forms of “to be” — was, is, has been, etc.
  15. Practice. When you receive an example of bad government writing, rewrite it. Do NOT send your edits back to the sender in red ink (like my great aunts used to do with my letters), which is not kind or advisable. Instead, use the poor example as a writing exercise to learn how to identify bad writing and avoid it in your own work.

Writing is our way to convey ideas. Keep it simple, clear and focused. Eliminate word mutations into your writing. Cling to your basic grammar and you will be fine. If you want to brush up on your grammar, I highly recommend listening to the GrammarGirl podcast or reading the following books: On Writing Well by William Zinsser, Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale or The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon.

Susan Lovett is the owner of The Right Word writing studio and a member of The Military Writers Guild. She posts blogs about writing at www.FigmentsandFables.com. Follow her on Twitter @figmentsfables.

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