Make It Clear

Readers often indict business writing for being hard to figure out. When the message doesn’t get through, the official charge is “failure to communicate” — a felony for an infowriter.

Lethargic language with long, complicated sentences that are vague and wordy, doesn’t connect with readers. To make sure the message gets through, edit for vigorous language. The document should:

  • Use the language that its readers use.
  • Focus on concrete nouns and active verbs.
  • Consist mainly of simple declarative sentences.


Use the readers’ language.

This goes back to the cardinal rule of infowriting–know who you’re talking to. The preceding sentence, for example, is not a text-book example of good grammar. If this were an academic paper, I would rephrase it to something like Know the people to whom you’re talking, or better, Know the audience being addressed. neither of which is the language of informal conversation that a blog’s readers expect.

When you know your readers, you can make the language appropriate by:

  • Editing out phrases that would be too formal (or too casual).
  • Defining words that are unusual and possibly unfamiliar (if unfamiliar words can’t be avoided).
  • Using audience-appropriate jargon (in small doses) to make the reader more comfortable.


Use concrete nouns and active verbs.

For most infowriting, lofty abstractions are not useful. They blur a document’s edges and make it hard to tell exactly what needs to be done. To make sure your message is clear, check your writing for fuzziness.

  • Nominalizations (verbs turned into nouns) mush up your writing. Associate Professor Dennis Jerz (Seton Hill University) tells his students:

    A “nominalized” sentence is one in which abstract nouns perform most of the work. Instead of boring your readers with with a lot of abstract nouns (such as those formed by a verb root + “-tion”), revise your sentences in order to make your verbs do the work.

    For example:

    Mushy: The instructor gave a lecture about safe handling practices for volatile chemicals. The result was a sharp decrease in serious student injuries.
    Better: The instructor taught students the safe way to handle volatile materials. The monthly count of student injuries decreased by 95%.

    For more details and examples, check out Professor Jerz’ resource page on the topic.

    Use simple declarative sentences.

    This doesn’t need much explanation. In three bullet points, it means:

    • Use normal word order. In English, that means subject, verb, and then object. The verb at the end of the sentence do not place. And when you find a sentence that begins There are, fix it. At least 80% of the time, you can find a sharper, more focused, and direct way to say what you want to say.
    • In concert with normal word order, use the active voice. Assign responsibility whenever possible. For example:

      Mushy: The report was written to inform…
      Better: John Jones wrote the report to inform…

    • Dismantle epic sentences. James Joyce and William Faulkner produced works of genius, but they weren’t writing business or technical documents. As a rule, keep sentences between 12 and 25 words long; it’s easier on your readers.


    Other articles in this series: