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Tips for Writing

Ten Principles of Clear Writing

  1. Keep sentences short
    • Sentences must vary in length to avoid boring your reader and add pace to your writing. But the average length should be short, 15 to 20 words.
    • Trim the fat from your writing. Fuzzy words, along with unnecessary ones, make your writing difficult to read and understand.
  2. Prefer the simple to the complex
    • This principle does not outlaw the use of a complex form. You need both simple and complex forms for clear expression. At times, the complex form may be best. So if the right word is a big word, go ahead and use it. But, if a shorter word does the job, use it.
    • Of the 10 principles, complexity is the one most violated. Many people facing a blank page, or blank screen, begin to put on airs. They use three words when one will do. They cannot resist the gingerbread of four-syllable words. They write utilization when they could just as well write use, or modification when the short word change would do.
    • Unconscious use of complexity is hard to overcome. Roots of the fault are sunk deep in habit.
    • Writing shorter sentences usually means you use shorter words.
  3. Prefer the familiar words
    • You need all the words you can master. Perhaps you can get along with a working vocabulary of 5,000 words. But, if you want to succeed in our complicated society, you'll be better off with 30,000. However, the intelligent person uses a large vocabulary only to give clear, exact meaning—never to show off.
    • The 50 words most often used make up 50 percent of written English. The 1,000 most common words turn up 80 percent of the time. The 10,000 words most often used account for 98 percent of all that's written.
  4. Avoid unnecessary words
    • After you have written something, go back through it and eliminate all the unnecessary words.
    • Unnecessary words are included unconsciously, for the most part.
  5. Put action in your verbs
    • The fullback hits the line. That's writing with an active verb. The line is hit by the fullback. In this sentence the verb is passive. The electricity is gone. The snap of action is no longer there. The same idea translated into typical business jargon goes something like this: The hitting of the line is an activity engaged in by the player acting in the capacity of fullback.
    • Passive: Present design methods are predicated on the assumption that one-piece windshields are preferred by the public. Active: Designers assume the public prefers one-piece windshields.
  6. Write like you talk
    • In our speech we do not use long, involved sentences laden with multi-syllable words that usually occur in our writing.
    • In our speaking we use examples to clarify our meaning. That technique helps in writing well.
    • There are limitations to writing like you talk. Most people talk rather untidy English. They repeat themselves. However, if you think about how you would tell someone the information verbally, that may help you organize the way to tell the same information through writing.
  7. Use terms your reader can picture
    • Avoid fuzzy words. Conditions, situations, facilities and inadequacies are typical examples.
    • Rather than saying the Japanese quail is a small bird, say that when full-grown it's about the size of a man's fist.
  8. Tie in with the reader's experience
    • Much communication fails because writers ignore readers' beliefs, how they came by them and how firmly they hold onto them.
    • Words are not fixed. They vary in meaning from person to person, depending upon experiences and the pictures the words call to mind.
    • Highly abstract words are often useful for thinking but they can be tricky in communication because they are open to such wide interpretation.
    • To get your words read, understood and accepted, you must have a clear understanding of your own purposes and of the purposes of the reader. If these purposes differ, you have two courses for winning acceptance of your message. You must either change your reader's, or you must show the reader that though your purposes differ, they have something in common.
    • It isn’t enough to write to be understood. You must write so you can't be misunderstood.
  9. Make full use of variety
    • If you get caught writing simply, you have failed. Good writers work within a strict discipline of simplicity. But they introduce variety into sentence length, structure and vocabulary so that simplicity is not noticed. The reader never thinks the writing choppy or childish.
    • Variety is a chief ingredient in the art of writing.
  10. Write to express not impress
    • A trap awaits the inexperienced writer. He or she may write to impress rather than express.
    • No writing is easy. But we make it more difficult by seeking long, unfamiliar words and writing long, meandering sentences.
    • Striking awe by using big words is an illusion. Readers are not fooled by fancy language. Readers do not think to themselves: "I can't understand what she is saying. She must be highly intelligent."
Following is the Gunning Fog Index developed by the Gunning-Mueller Clear Writing Institute of Santa Barbara, California. It is helpful to take a sample of your writing or someone else's to see the grade level necessary to be able to understand what is written. Keep in mind that most people like to read at a grade level lower than what they have achieved. Writing between the 8th and 10th grade levels is quick and easy to read. Most samples from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times fall between the 8th and 10th grade levels.

The Gunning Fog Index

  1. Select a sample of at least 100 words. Count the number of sentences. Divide the total number of words in the sample by the number of sentences to get the average sentence length (ASL).
  2. Count the number of words with three or more syllables in the sample. Don’t count: 1) proper nouns; 2) hyphenated words; 3) two-syllable verbs made into three with –es and –ed endings.
  3. Divide this number by the number of words in your sample. For example, 15 long word divided by 100 words gives you 15 percent hard words (PHW).
  4. To get the fog index, add the average sentence length and the percent hard words and multiply this by .4. The formula looks like this: (ASL + PHW). 4 = Grade Level. This is the number of years of schooling the reader would have to have to understand the writing sample.
With thanks to Linda Foster Benedict, Associate Director and Associate Professor of Agriculture Communications, LSU AgCenter. March 2002. Adapted from Gunning-Mueller Clear Writing Institute, Santa Barbara, California.