Tip: If you're serious about how to write clearly, one of the best ways is to improve your vocabulary — not so you know how to use big words, but so you can choose the right word at the right time to convey your meaning precisely, clearly, and simply. To improve your vocabulary, we highly recommend you try the popular vocabulary-improvement software called Ultimate Vocabulary. Click Ultimate Vocabulary for details.*
Here are some quick tips on how to write clearly through careful word choice.
- Use words in their precise sense. Avoid common English errors. For example, uninterested means bored, but disinterested means impartial; misinformation means accidentally false information, but disinformation means intentionally false information; apparent is different from evident; unnatural is different from supernatural; reverse is different from converse; and so on. To use words properly and precisely, you must develop your vocabulary.
- Don’t use the same word to mean different things. Edwin Abbott in How To Write Clearly gives this example: "It is in my power to refuse your request, and since I have power to do this, I may lawfully do it." Here, the author uses the second power for authority.
- Avoid words such as very and extremely. These words are unquantifiable and therefore lack clarity and precision.
- Avoid unneeded circumlocution. Do not use assist for help, individual for person, utilise for use, and so on.
- Take care with ambiguous words. For example, does contemporary mean now or then? Does certain mean some or definite? Does object mean aim or thing?
- Make sure the reader knows what it, he, they, these, and other pronouns refer to. If there is doubt, specify the noun to which the pronoun refers. Say It is in Oliver’s bag rather than It is in his bag.
- Avoid redundancies. For example, use with rather than along with or together with and use which rather than and which.
- Prefer the particular to the general. Say Alex has 3 brothers rather than Alex has several brothers; There has been a twofold increase rather than There has been a significant increase.
- Use people’s names rather than labels. Say Mrs White rather than The plaintiff; Ericka rather than The tourist; Catherine rather than The commuter.
- Explain what does or did happen rather than what does not or did not happen. For example, say Trevor forgot rather than Trevor did not remember; Your prose is unclear rather than Your prose is not clear. Make sure you especially avoid double negatives, such as Chris took a not unsympathetic view or Chris is not unintelligent.
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