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Pen Zen: Bring Clarity to Writing

Photo by g2slp

Have you ever read an email from someone that was too wordy, lacked focus, and left you confused? How can we learn from reading such emails to improve our own communication? How do we compose emails and writings that others will actually want to read?

The ability to write clearly is crucial to getting your message across no matter what you’re writing, whether it’s an email, a blog post, a magazine article, or a letter to a friend. Clear and concise writing is vital to having your words read and understood.

The whole purpose of most writing is to inform readers of something or to persuade people to do something. The more clear and concise your language, the easier your message will be understood, and the more likely your readers will respond to that message.

Before you can write clearly, you have to be able to think clearly. A big reason many writers don’t see desired success in conveying their message is that they were not focused on a clear message. Good writing usually stems directly from clear thinking.

In this post, we’ll first look at some common obstacles to clear thinking and writing, then offer some suggestions to develop the mental state for clear writing, and finally give some specific writing tips that, if implemented, will immediately add that magic touch of clarity to your writing.


Three Obstacles to Clear and Concise Writing

Obstacle 1: False ideas about what good writing is.

Many writers try to write more intelligently and attractively than they need to. Their writing can come across as trying too hard and that isn’t intelligent or attractive. There’s no cosmic law dictating that as soon as you start putting words on paper, you have to jazz it up and make it sound more intelligent than it really is.

Even writers with more knowledge and experience make this mistake. They want to impress readers with their grandiose grasp of the language, tossing about little-known, large words and trying to write in a clever way that ends up diminishing the clarity of their message. They’ve forgotten the most important piece of good writing: your first priority is to inform your readers, not to impress them.

If you seek first to impress, you probably won’t; nor will you often truly inform, as your message gets lost in the jungle of your arcane vocabulary. Seek first to inform, as clearly as you can. If you do that, you stand a better chance of also impressing your readers because you expressed your points clearly.

Obstacle 2: Not being clear about one’s message.

Many writers have a general idea of what they want to say, but they don’t crystallize it in one short, snappy sentence. Thus, they start out writing, touching on their topic from different angles, and including every bit of information they think is relevant.

The writing may end up readable and professional sounding, but the readers will come away thinking that, while they understood the gist of the author’s intent, they can’t precisely say what the take-home point was. This is usually because the writer never really knew what it was either.

Obstacle 3: Distractions.

Your mind has to be clear for your writing to be precise. If you’ve got the TV on in the background, if other people are coming in and out of your writing space, if you’ve got Twitter updates and email updates continually popping up on your screen, etc. – your focus will be eradicated.

How to Develop the Clear Mental State for Writing

1. Read, Read, Read

Reading broadly can accomplish two things: one, broaden your vocabulary so you more naturally use the right words instead of searching about for intelligent-sounding words which might not be a good fit; and two, you can get a much better, natural feel for what makes up good, clear, and fluid writing.

Additionally, you expose yourself to more ideas and perspectives, forcing yourself to think more critically in general, which will enable you to think more critically about the subjects on which you’re writing.

Respected magazines and newspapers which regularly include in-depth articles and essays have been extremely helpful to me in demonstrating how to write clear, engaging, intelligent prose which convey both a clear message and a colorful style. Two of my favorites are GQ Magazine and the Wall Street Journal newspaper.

2. Read Books and Blogs on Writing

The following are resources that have most directly and immediately benefited my writing mechanics.



3. Clear Your Writing Space

When it’s time to write, clear everything off your writing table except for what’s absolutely necessary to write the piece. There might be all kinds of unrelated notes, books, magazines, loose change, several pens, notepads, etc. Simply take a minute to rid the table of all the excess. Only keep resources directly related to the current project and set everything else aside. For example, a pen or notes might be good resources to keep close. Clarity and simplicity in your workspace lends itself to clarity and simplicity in your thinking, and so on down to your writing.

4. Block-Off Time

Determine how much time you realistically think you’ll need to write the piece and schedule that time period for writing only. Say it’ll take you maybe three hours. Block off that time and do nothing but work on the project for the full three hours, taking a five-minute break at the end of each hour to walk around and stretch.

5. Eliminate Distractions

Turn off the television, turn off your cell phone, turn off instant messaging, turn off Twitter and email updates, and anything else that’s likely to interrupt you, thus diminishing your focus. You might also consider turning off your Internet connection so you don’t surf the web.

All of that distracting infotainment will still be there in droves once you finish your project. Then info-binge all you want. But, for the time being, do nothing but write. Simple. Clear. Focused.


8 Keys to Clarity When Writing


1. Visualize Road Signs

Think about the street and highway signs you see around your city. People who write road signs have very little space within which to get their message across. In that very limited space, the fewer and larger the words, the more likely drivers are to see the words and process the conveyed message.


  • Do Not Enter
  • Speed Limit 50: Next 400 Miles.
  • Stop

Notice the concise prose. The message is very clear. Do the same in your own writing. Choose the right words, the most descriptive words, and keep your words to a minimum. Say exactly what you have to say and be done with it. Don’t muddy up your meaning by writing more than is necessary to make your point.

2. Write a One-Liner Summary

You may remember writing a thesis statement in high school or college. Similar to a thesis statement, consider putting together a one sentence summary text describing the main purpose prior to writing.

Whenever you have something to write, take a few minutes to think your subject through, and then write out, in one or two short sentences, the main idea you’re trying to get across. Think about your purpose with this piece of writing and your expected outcome.

Do this for yourself, as a guiding structure for your writing, and refer back to it regularly to stay on track toward your primary argument.

A purposeful summary or thesis statement is like a company’s mission statement; it sets out our clear mission in whatever we’re writing.

3. Do Your Headline First

A headline is a one-sentence encapsulation of your subject and will act as a guiding force for your entire piece. While the thesis statement is a promise you make to yourself, your writing will reflect the thesis statement – a headline “is a promise to prospective readers. Its job is to clearly communicate the benefit that you will deliver to the reader in exchange for their valuable time,” says Brian Clark.

Figure out what you really want your piece to say, and after putting together a good thesis statement, write up a good, snappy, eye-catching, bold, informative, and short headline.

Once you have a good title, it functions as a reference point for your piece. As you’re writing, imagine yourself in the place of your readers; continually ask yourself if the arguments you’re making, the prose you’re writing, truly fulfills the promise made to your readers. Combining a good thesis statement with a good headline before you begin writing can have a powerful, laser-like effect on your focus, enabling you to write with more clarity and purpose.

Photo via Peter Gene

4. Write Like You Talk

Instead of reaching about for soaring words and phrases, simply write like normal people speak. Of course, you’ll have to adjust for legitimate differences between spoken and written words, but you should use the language your readers will clearly understand and relate to. Don’t confuse your prose’s clarity by using jargon or stilted, “intelligent” words.

An example of what you shouldn’t write:

I do believe that the most important action that could be taken to improve customer satisfaction is to truly engage customers by establishing a significant relationship with them through extended attention to what motivates them to take a particular stance in correlation to the company.

Most normal people don’t speak like that. Change it to:

Let’s really pay attention to what our customers say they want from us.

Remember, simple, short, and clear.

Another benefit to writing like you speak is that you retain your own voice and can express yourself authentically. You don’t need to search for unfamiliar language to sound more professional. Simply be yourself and write the way you speak. Your prose will become clearer and your own voice will shine through.

5. Use Simple Words to Evoke Vivid Images

Often the simple short word will do much better than any large word, to convey your idea, and be more clearly understood. Try to create concrete images in your writing by using real, earthy words; words that describe actual things. Here are some related quotes from respected authors:

  • “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”George Orwell.
  • “Always prefer the clean direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.”C.S. Lewis.
  • “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”Ernest Hemingway.

6. Eliminate Redundant Words and Phrases

Some redundancy is necessary to stress your main points, but too much indicates that you don’t really have much to say or know how to say it well. An easy way of reducing redundancy is to not use two or more words which mean the same thing.


  • Past history – if something is history, it clearly happened in the past;
  • Armed gunman – if someone has a gun, they’re clearly armed;
  • Foreign imports – if something is imported, it’s clearly foreign;
  • Screaming loudly – if someone is screaming, they’re clearly being loud.

Only use the words you need to use and eliminate excess. After writing, go back to each paragraph and sentence with a fine toothed comb and see how you can rephrase the same meaning using fewer words. Do this several times. Don’t be afraid to cut text out, if it means a more effective piece of writing.



7. Minimize Clichés.

A cliché is a phrase, expression, or idea that has been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty, especially when at some time it was considered distinctively forceful or novel. Dulling your writing or speaking with clichés is lazy thinking. It shows you don’t value your subject enough to invest the energy and time to really describe it in more colorful, unique, and accurate language.

George Orwell called clichés dying metaphors and ready-made phrases that do your thinking for you. Instead of using clichés to fill in space, aim to think critically about meaning and choose words that accurately and freshly conjure the image and meaning you are trying to convey.

Examples of long-standing clichés:

  • Light at the end of the tunnel
  • Keeping up with the Joneses
  • Put it on the back burner

Examples of popular clichés today:

Orwell offers this advice for using more colorful language without resorting to clichés:

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”

8. Cut Out Most Metadiscourse.

Metadiscourse is simply writing about writing. It occurs when a writer comments on what he is saying. Examples are: I believe, I think, In my opinion. These are unnecessary because it is clear that you are the one expressing your opinion, and excessive usage can make your writing sound extra verbose.

An example of especially verbose metadiscourse:

I would like to take this opportunity to offer a hearty congratulations to you.

No need to say you would like to take this opportunity; just take it. Don’t tell him that you would like to, or are about to, offer congratulations – just congratulate him.

Here’s an alternative version projecting the same meaning:


There are times when metadiscourse is helpful. Particularly, when the topic is controversial, it is wise to be clear that a statement is our opinion.

The point here is to become aware of when we add extra words to justify ourselves. Constantly adding metadiscourse adds unnecessary words and buries the main point.


What components have you noticed in writing making it easy to read? Any tips for keeping your emails and writing as simple and clear as possible? Share your thoughts with us in the comments. See you there.

Jesse Hines is a freelance writer. For any writing needs you have, contact him for a quote via his website. To get more writing tips from Jesse, subscribe to his blog, Robust Writing.

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85 thoughts on Pen Zen: Bring Clarity to Writing

  1. Great post! I also found it really helpful to maintain a steady pace when writing. If I’m stuck in a section, I skip it and move on. Agonizing over the right words one section at a time usually resulted in verbose sentences that didn’t flow. I’m of clearer mind coming back to those trouble spots at the end.

    I’m also in agreement with the above. I’m a strong believer of “write like you talk”. I’ve gotten in trouble for being too colloquial before, but I’ll take that to the alternative.

  2. sselthguoht

    Why doesn’t anyone talk about the creativity at at all????

  3. Brent

    Delightfully enough, this post has been cited at under the title Kick-Ass Guide to Write with Clarity (sic).

    Oh dear.

  4. djb

    “Could I put it more shortly?” could be “Are fewer words possible?”

  5. dorian

    Perhaps you could add that NOT inserting ads into your text makes it even more fun to read it.
    Further than that, I really like your article. Good job!

  6. Ah. Clarity is a favorite topic of mine. The times I’ve gotten awards for my writing and (separately) been published in major newspapers have been the times I’ve been crystal-clear in my thinking. The clarity then got transmitted to the reader, a la Pen Zen.

    I see our lives as being very parallel to our writing. . . . what do we stand for? What can we strip away, and what’s the essence?

  7. Owen Hopkin

    Maybe I’m not the target audience here, but I found this article a little worrying in its drive to stifle creativity.

    I absolutely agree with the stand taken against corporate newspeak and the tendency to over-elaborate, but if everyone wrote like The Wall Street Journal we’d be living in a very boring world indeed.

    Don’t just think about what you want to say. Think about how you can say it creatively! There’s nothing wrong with reaching a little higher, or trying to take the reader a little higher, too. Maybe, just maybe, the word you don’t understand has precisely the correct meaning and not ‘arcane’ at all. Let’s not forget to use the dictionary here. It’s one of the most powerful language tools we have.

    Clarity in writing is incredibly important, but the creativity that’s been the bedrock of English writing should be embraced and used. Great prose is not just for musty old books, it’s there to help you express your personality, your emotions and your message.

  8. Jim McDosh

    Dude Clarity is worth its weight in gold. Didnt you know that.


  9. Ken

    taking your advice: Great. Post.

  10. alan

    The metadiscourse point is huge and the most common mistake of otherwise reasonable corresponders. However, I was particularly impressed that you included the corollary that metadiscourse is sometimes important for managing tone. Sometimes, delivering a point to directly carries an unwanted abruptness that can be smoothed out with the cadence management metadiscourse provides. That said, you should always start off by removing it and only re-apply it in the Few instances where it is necessary.

    Also, the point you made about thinking about what you want to say before writing is the single most effective tool to good writing. It’s the art of thinking about the message rather than the writing. Once you realize what it is you want to convey, simply write it out just as you thought it. 90% of the time, that’s the optimal way to write.

  11. John Breininger

    Good informative article.

    You might find the book I just finished reading called: Words that Work by Dr. Frank Luntz interesting. He espouses many of the same basic fundamentals that you point out and takes it to the next level. Highly recommended for anyone that needs to use the English language to communicate effectively.

  12. Nice one brother. Online writing and print writing all require well-written copy.

    Glad you drive home that point.

  13. Owen,

    Trust me, I have no “drive to stifle creativity” whatsoever.

    In fact, I agree that with you that “if everyone wrote like The Wall Street Journal we’d be living in a very boring world indeed.”

    That’s why I also mentioned GQ Magazine because it runs monthly in-depth articles on interesting subjects, often very creatively and elegantly written–great examples of style and clarity.

    Reading feature-length magazine essays and articles (as well as the short articles) in addition to great literature has helped me improve my own creative writing.

    The point, though, is to make sure we’re clear about our subject and message before we get too creative with it.

    Let’s use the dictionary and imbue our prose with elegant and provocative creativity, but let’s also make sure that the words we’re using actually mean what we want to say.

    I’m all for clarity and creativity.

  14. Thanks for these reminders. A potential danger in the haste of churning out daily blog posts is making some of these very mistakes.

  15. Clarity is hard to achieve simply because there will always be distractions all around you. I don’t believe in a perfect, peaceful, writing-conducive environment. Distractions will always be there. Now, how you handle that is the true test of a clear mind.

  16. Ohm

    This is a well researched article Jesse/Tina and I’m impressed how much information you have packed into it. I think we need to consistently monitor ourselves when we write. Trimming excessive words is as much a necessity than bringing the actual message across.


  17. Jenny

    Thanks, I hate writing letters. I tend to ramble and avoid it as much as possible. Now I can try some good ol’ fashioned correspondence again.

  18. Such a great pointers!!!! Thanks for sharing with us!

  19. Thanks for the great article and also the lot of informative comments.

    > I believe, I think, In my opinion.
    > These are unnecessary because it is clear
    > that you are the one expressing your opinion,
    > and excessive usage can make your writing sound extra verbose.”

    I do not completely agree with this as there are differences in “I think” (just an idea that asks for a response to it) and “I know” (result of a research or testing). An opinion is a more proven thing than a thought. For all variants it is ok to share with others (you not necessarily may share only proven knowledge unless you are writing about the results of a scientific study ;-) ).

    However, such phrases are often used more intensive than necessary.

  20. Elaine K

    Superb advice! Thanks!

  21. ohm,


    I think you’re right that “we need to consistently monitor ourselves when we write.”

    It’s all about focus.


    Indeed, “there are differences in ‘I think’ (just an idea that asks for a response to it) and ‘I know’ (result of a research or testing).”

    All metadiscourse shouldn’t always be eliminated, but it should be scrutinized to see if it’s really necessary or helpful.

    Sometimes it is, often it isn’t.

    But, it does depend on the context.

  22. There is no better book for writing than Elements of Style. Classic and relevant all at the same time. Good writing does not go out of style.

  23. Thanks for the helpful advice.

    This post reminds me of Mr. Collea who used to write a note in my bio lab report: “too much information is no information!”

  24. njprogressive

    Use the active voice. When you use active verbs, your writing is shorter, punchier, and more direct.

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