Writing 101: Clarity and Simplicity

Good writing is simple and clear. When you revise for clarity, ask yourself two questions about each line: what am I really trying to say? Have I said that in the clearest way possible?

Below are some tips for making your writing more clear.

1. Explain It Out Loud

Sometimes I highlight an unclear passage of a student’s essay and ask her to explain what she means. She explains, and I say, “That’s great. Write that.”

“Really?” she replies. “I can write it just like that?”

Yes. You can write it just like that.

Try explaining an unclear passage to a friend. If all of your friends are sick to death of your personal statement, talk out loud to yourself.

2. Make Sure You Know What You Mean

Sometimes an unclear passage reflects not a failure of communication but a failure of thought. It’s surprising how often we 1) don’t know what we mean, and 2) don’t even realize that we don’t know what we mean. People say things like, “I just can’t explain it,” when in fact they aren’t sure what they’re trying to explain.

Clear writing reflects clear thinking. Unclear writing often reflects unclear thinking.

Before you try to fix the writing, you’ll have to figure out what you mean. Once again, it helps to talk out loud. If it turns out that you’re not saying anything substantive, delete the passage.

3. Say It Simply

Complicated is easy. Simple is hard. Boil your ideas down to their essence. Use clear, straightforward language unless you have a good reason not to.

Exercise: Clarifying and Simplifying

Some of these sentences should be rewritten entirely. Others have phrases that should be clarified or simplified. Click on each one and do your best, then click on “My Edit.” Don’t despair if your edit doesn’t look like mine: there are many ways to improve each example.

My Edit
My Edit
My Edit
My Edit
My Edit
My Edit
My Edit
My Edit

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