Please Don't Write Well, Write Clearly


Chris Blattman just published a piece about the 10 things he'd tell college kids. I think they're all generally great pieces of advice, but I want to expand on one point in particular.

His #3 piece of advice is "Learn to write well". As a general concept, I'm all for that. Chris says,

You'll be surprised how many proposals, pitches, reports, and letters you'll write in life. Even if you're not in that line of work, until they put microchips in our brains (which, admittedly, might not be so far off) writing emails will probably be the main way you connect with your bosses, colleagues, friends, and customers.

This is absolutely right. For many, many jobs, the majority of time is probably spent writing in some form or another.

But I'd make a clear distinction between being a "good writer" and a "clear writer". For the writing that Chris is talking about - proposals, reports, letters, e-mails - what you are after is clarity, not quality. You want your reader to get your point quickly and find the supporting evidence easily. Quality writing is about the subtle use of language, playing words off one another, and evoking emotion. All these things are the enemy of clear writing. The goal of your e-mail is not to generate a late-night drunken discussion about the perceptions of good and evil manifested in the portrayal of Boo Radley. It's an e-mail.

Chris suggests "You might also consider a course in creative, non-fiction, journalism, or business writing." For the love of God, please don't. Take courses that demand you write, not courses that are about writing. Writing courses are generally taught by people who want you to "write well", not "write clearly". They are either good writers themselves, or are aspiring to be good writers. In pursuit of "good writing" they will tell you to do things that inhibit the clarity of your writing. Your goal is not to be Harper Lee, it is to be understood quickly and unambiguously. (If you *do* want to be Harper Lee, then you probably aren't reading this blog).

As part of being a clear writer, please don't ever use the "persuasive essay" format. This idea is pushed in writing classes, and should die painfully in a fire. Don't tell the reader that you are going to tell them the information they need. Don't tell the reader later on that you just told them the information they need. Just tell them the information they need. The "persuasive essay" format is suitable for speeches or presentations, but not for 99% of the writing that you will need to do.

The following tips for clear writing exist in some form all over the place, but keep them in mind:

  1. Your paper/report/email has too many paragraphs.
  2. Your paragraphs have too many sentences.
  3. Your sentences have too many words.

For pieces that are expected to be long (e.g. papers) the first point about paragraphs is crucial. I can almost guarantee you that if you lopped off the very first paragraph of you paper and dropped it down a deep well, no one would ever notice.

How do you get better at writing clearly?

  1. Write something.
  2. Shorten it.
  3. Show it to someone else and get their feedback.
  4. Goto #1.

You cannot skip the third step. Nothing clarifies your writing mind like the thought that someone else is going to read your work. You have to continually ask people what they think. This is the value of taking writing-intensive classes in college. You have a captive audience who actually *wants* (ok, feels obligated, but take what you can get) to read your writing. The professor in a subject-matter class is after clarity, not quality. Take their comments seriously.

I say all this as someone who spent a good fifteen years scratching and clawing his way from "vomiting word salad" to "making occasional sense". The biggest step I took was in striving to write clearly, not well. I'll let you know when I finally get there.

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