In his recently published book, Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters, legendary British author and editor Sir Harold Evans argues that clarity and concision are the greatest virtues of a writer. And he should know — he has impeccable credentials. Not only did he write two best-selling history books, The American Century and They Made America, Evans was also the editor of many highly respected publications, like the Sunday Times, US News and World Report, The Week, Conde Nast Traveler, the New York Daily News, The Atlantic Monthly, and Reuters. And if that wasn’t enough, he was also president and publisher of Random House for several years. Based on seven decades of experience, Evans presents a chapter entitled “Ten Shortcuts to Making Yourself Clear.” “[Keep] ten shortcuts [with all due respect, perhaps “tips” or “rules” would be more appropriate here] in mind when you write and edit,” Evans advises, “[the ten tips] are mainly intended to help a writer convert meaning, and stages of meaning; help an editor engage with piles of dross to produce concise, direct English any reasonably literate person can understand; and help a reader unravel spaghetti… I weighted the ten injections for conciseness and clarity, rather than literary effect, because windiness is the prevailing affliction.” Here are the ten tips or rules:
1. Get moving: avoid passive voice; cast sentences in the active voice.
2. Be specific: eschew abstract words in favor of specific words.
3. Ration adjectives, raze adverbs: ask yourself: is the adjective really necessary to define the subject of the sentence? Does the adverb really enhance the verb or adjective?
4. Cut the fat, check the figures: avoid verbosity; write as concisely as possible.
5. Organize for clarity: use parallel structure to put things that belong together.
6. Be positive: write assertive sentences; even a negative should be expressed in a positive form.
7. Don’t be a bore: eschew monotony by implementing different sentence structures.
8. Put people first: make sentence bear directly on the reader.
9. The pesky prepositions: use prepositions appropriately — they are the workhorses that link nouns; they tell us when, where, why, and how.
10. Down with monologophobia (fear of using the same word twice in a sentence or successive sentences): do not develop other nouns when a pronoun will work just fine.
For further reading: Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters, by Harold Evans