Five Strategies for Writing More Clearly

Professors often complain that students’ writing is “unclear”. But what does this mean, and how can you fix it? Here are five pieces of advice for improving your writing clarity.

(1)    Use signposts

In this paragraph, I’m going to explain what signposting is. Signposting is when you tell your reader what you’re going to say next (see? I just did it in the first sentence of this paragraph). This is very useful for readers. It makes it easier to understand why a writer is talking about one topic or another, and makes a piece of writing flow better. And when grading papers, professors are more likely to understand and appreciate your ideas if they can quickly and easily understand what you’re trying to say.

You should signpost your longer papers with an introduction (say what you’re going to say in the paper as a whole), but you should also use words and phrases to signpost each paragraph. For example, if you’re about to consider the evidence in support of an idea, you might start the paragraph by saying something like this:

“There are many sources of evidence to support this claim, and I will now consider a few of them. For example…”

Of course, you don’t always have to literally tell your reader what you’re about to say. There are lots of little words and phrases that allow you to signpost your topic more subtly. A numbered list works very well. Start by saying something like this:

“There are three main objections to this theory…”

And follow up with numbered points:

“The first objection concerns the lack of scientific evidence in its favor… the second objection is that the theory has counterexamples, for example… the final objection is that the theory contradicts itself, in the following way…”

The other great thing about a list is that it’s much easier to keep things in mind when they’ve been broken up into parts. That makes it easy for your instructor to understand any subsequent points you make, and will help you get full credit for your writing.

There are also lots of useful little words and phrases that you can use for signposting: additionally, furthermore, nevertheless, however, for this reason, because of, due to, consequently, as a result, in other words, and many more.

Of course, there’s another tool you can use to signal to your reader that you’re about to start a new topic or take the discussion in a new direction: simply start a new paragraph.


(2)    Keep it simple

When writing an academic paper, it can be tempting to use a thesaurus to find complex or unusual words. So, rather than saying “this argument is not good and it just makes things more confused”, you could say “this argument is egregious and obfuscates the issue.” After all, you sound smarter if you use big words right?

Actually, this isn’t true! A recent psychological study demonstrated that people will judge you to be less intelligent if you use big and unusual words rather than small ones . More importantly, if you rely on words and phrases you’ve found in a thesaurus, you’re less likely to use them correctly.

It’s also sometimes tempting to use more complex and less conversational sentence structures in a writing assignment. Imagine someone wants to write “I think it’s a bad idea”, but they’re worried this doesn’t sound formal enough. So, they rephrase it as “The idea here presented is not one that strikes the writer of this paper as having much merit.” The problem is, that sounds MUCH worse, and it’s much less clear.

We all want to write well, but that doesn’t mean making things complicated. Good writers keep it simple.  As an exercise, see if you can rephrase the following bloated passage so you can make it simpler.

There has been an additional observation made by the present author. The person who possesses the highest degree of velocity with respect to running may not, in all circumstances, be the person who achieves the greatest degree of success in a competitive athletic event. Likewise, and on the same point, on the topic of combatants, the individual who possesses the greatest degree of physical power may on occasion fail to achieve victory with respect to his or her altercations. Additionally, even among the sagacious, it sometimes happens that there is an insufficiency of sustenance; and moreover, those possessing a high degree of aptitude in their respective disciplines may fail to achieve remuneration in proportion to their ability. Finally, those who have been the fortunate subjects of an enriching educational environment may nonetheless fail to meet with the success which one might otherwise expect them to encounter. Rather, the degree to which one meets with success or failure is a function of happenstance, and the appropriate optimization one’s spatial and temporal locations.


(3)    Watch your modifiers

Very often when writing, you’ll use a short descriptive phrase before the main clause of a sentence. See – I just did it in the last sentence (“Very often when writing”). It’s a useful way of providing background information without the need for a separate sentence. So, consider the following sentence.

 “Jack realized he was going to miss his flight, so he walked into the nearest bar.”

There’s nothing wrong with this sentence, but sometimes we’ll want to be more concise and punchy. So we could rephrase it by making the first clause into a little descriptive phrase, as follows:

“Realizing he was going to miss his flight, Jack walked into the nearest bar.”

There are lots of times little phrases like this come in handy. Here are some more good examples.

“Struggling to win enough votes in the Senate, President Johnson turned directly to the American people.”
“Assuming the subject is not told what to expect prior to the experiment, he or she will typically behave in a confused and disoriented manner.”
“After examining the major arguments, I conclude that the claims made by the target paper are unsupported by the evidence.”

However, there’s one thing to be careful of when using phrases like this: they can be ambiguous. Consider the following (bad!) examples:

”Sleepy and having drunk too much wine, Brian struggled to engage his audience.”
“Overcome with sorrow, the priest found it difficult to console the grieving father.”

In these sentences, it’s not clear who the first phrase describes. Is it Brian who’s sleepy and drunk, or is it his audience? The context suggests that it’s the audience, but the grammar suggests it’s Brian. And is it the grieving father or the priest who is overcome with sorrow? Again, the context suggests the father, but the grammar tells a different story.

This problem is easy to resolve. You just need to make sure the subject of the phrase (the person who it describes) comes immediately after the comma, like this:

Sleepy and having drunk too much wine, the audience was not engaged by Brian’s lecture.”
“Overcome with sorrow, the grieving father remained unmoved by the priest’s attempts at consolation.”

Another way to resolve the problem would be to extend the sentence and explain its components more carefully, like this:

The audience was sleepy and had drunk too much wine, so Brian struggled to engage them.”
The grieving father was overcome with sorrow, so the priest struggled to console him.”

There’s one more thing to be careful of here, which is sentences like the following.

“Having examined the arguments, they are unconvincing.”

Students often write things like this, and although they usually make sense, they’re not grammatical. The reason is that there’s no subject for the first phrase. Who, exactly, examined the arguments? Well, presumably the person who’s writing the paper. But he or she doesn’t tell us that, or use any kind of word to make clear who’s doing the examining, so the phrase “having examined the arguments” doesn’t make proper sense. This is easy to fix, though, as follows:

”Having examined the arguments, I find them to be unconvincing.”

Simply by inserting the word “I” after the comma, we now know who examined the arguments and the sentence is grammatical. Make sure you check your writing assignments so you avoid this sort of ambiguity and grammatical mistake!


(4)    Rephrase to avoid complex structure!

I just showed you one way to deal with unclear phrases, which is to break up the sentence into smaller parts. This strategy can also be applied to lots of other complex and unclear sentences. Generally speaking, if your sentence is longer than a couple of lines, you should try to rephrase it. Consider the following example.

Out of all the evidence we looked at in class, the data that I found most compelling, apart from the actual testimonies of people who had lived through horrific experiences, was the data that came from the psychology experiments conducted in the 1960s that showed that ordinary people can act in ways that are actually extremely violent and cruel, as long as an authority figure is telling them to do it or they believe that they are acting in defense of the group.

The grammar here is fine, but it’s a nightmare for a reader because it’s just SO LONG. It’s hard to keep track of all the different ideas, and by the time you reach the end of the sentence, you may have already forgotten what was said at the beginning.

Thankfully, we can easily avoid monstrosities like this with a little rephrasing.

We examined a range of sources to better understand this phenomenon. The testimony of people who lived through horrific experiences is certainly the most striking and powerful demonstration of the phenomenon. However, of the scientific data, the most compelling was certainly the two experiments we examined from the 1960s. These showed that ordinary people can act in ways that are extremely violent and cruel, as long as certain conditions are met. Specifically, the studies showed that people can act violently if instructed by an authority figure or they believe that they are acting in defense of the group.

This paragraph is much easier to understand than the initial sentence. In general, it’s a good idea to keep the structure of individual sentences as simple as you can. It’s easier for your reader, and you’re less likely to create ambiguities or make grammatical errors.


(5)    Read it aloud!

Most people write in a way that’s different from how they talk. You wouldn’t write “that’s a whole ‘nother thing” in an academic paper. And it’s completely appropriate to be a little more formal in writing a paper. However, the best writers employ styles that wouldn’t be out of place in a spoken conversation. Here’s a passage from a short essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

“The hardest thing about learning any new skill is that beginning portion when you are forced to walk in the dark, with no map at all. It’s not just what you don’t know, it’s that you have no idea what you don’t know and when you’ll stop not knowing it. Fear then takes over. The questions—the darkness—dogs us. And so we quit. It’s hard to sit in ignorance—mostly because there are no real signs of when that ignorance will end.” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Next Tango With Paris”, The Atlantic).

This passage looks good on the page: it conveys a serious message with vivid examples, and it doesn’t sound flippant. But if you read it aloud, it also sounds fantastic. This passage isn’t from an academic paper, so you shouldn’t copy the style exactly, but there is a lesson here for your own writing. When you’re drafting a paper, try reading passages aloud from it. Do they sound fluid and natural, or artificial and clunky? If it’s the latter, then you might want to rephrase them.

Note that some professors may require highly formal styles of writing, and you should pay attention to their own guidelines. But shooting for prose that reads well but also sounds natural is a great way to improve the clarity of your writing.

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