Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Writing Clearly

Avoid jargon and big words: ‘Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English.’ --William Zinsser

Consider the sample sentence below:

DNR hosted a public forum to discuss TCE and its hazards to human health according to the EPA and IARC.

Perfectly clear, right?


Folks familiar with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) may also be familiar with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but the general population will struggle to read that sentence and understand. Even insiders may not recognize the acronyms for the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) or trichloroethylene (TCE).

Writers learn to eschew acronyms without first writing out the entire phrase from which an acronym comes. No matter how many extra characters you must use, an acronym is useless and off-putting unless readers know it as well as they know these:
  • ASAP = as soon as possible
  • FUBAR = F’d Up Beyond All Recognition
  • IDK = I don’t know.
  • LOL = Laugh Out Loud
  • P.S. = Post Script (More commonly now known as “afterthought)
  • RSVP = Répondez S’il Vous Plaît (Translation: Reply Please)
  • Snafu = Situation Normal--All F’d Up
Language unique to a field of study or profession is also confusing to the general public. That’s the genius of someone like Stephen W. Hawking. He made quantum physics accessible in books such as The Cambridge Lectures: Life Works. From that text, I have excerpted a fine example of academic explanations made known to the general public:

In the 1920s, when astronomers began to look at the spectra of stars in other galaxies, they found something most peculiar: There were the same characteristic sets of missing colors as for stars in our own galaxy, but they were all shifted by the same relative amount toward the red end of the spectrum. The only reasonable explanation of this was that the galaxies were moving away from us, and the frequency of the light waves from them was being reduced, or red-shifted, by the Doppler effect. Listen to a car passing on the road. As the car is approaching, its engine sounds at a higher pitch, corresponding to a higher frequency of sound waves; and when it passes and goes away, it sounds at a lower pitch. The behavior of light or radial waves is similar. Indeed, the police made use of the Doppler effect to measure the speed of cars by measuring the frequency of pulses of radio waves reflected off them (Hawking 22).

Galaxies, light spectrums, and the Doppler effect are made clear to readers with an analogy, but equally important, by the absence of big words or jargon. Hawking understands his subject so well that he’s able to render it accessible to all in comprehensible language. He is, as anyone might have guessed, a clear thinker.

As Zinsser advises, be not a muddy thinker, then you will avoid being a muddy writer. Know your subjects well, and know the best words. Read and study all life long.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Cambridge Lectures: Life Works by Stephen W. Hawking.

Writing Challenge:

Make complex thought comprehensible.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.