Why is clear writing so important?

Because, as my wife has often reminded me, you get only one chance to make a first impression.

Which also reminds me of the single most-often repeated line from wives to husbands: “Is that what you’re wearing?”

Our writing clothes us — either in precision and clarity, or in raggedness that turns off a reader and, worse, a customer. Careless errors in spelling or grammar undermine trust. So does roundabout sentence construction, to wit:

“The reason for my resignation was that it had become clear to me that the company expected me to do two jobs for the salary of one.”

That sentence can make you feel like being driven from Minneapolis to St. Paul by way of Green Bay, Wis. Instead of a brisk 11-mile jaunt between our two downtowns, you agonize through 277 miles to Green Bay and 277 miles back.

Better to write: “I resigned because the company expected me to do two jobs for the salary of one.”

That eliminates the weak verb “was,” and it economizes by eliminating “it had become clear to me that …”

The rewritten sentence has the virtue of substituting the active verb “resigned” for the two nouns “reason” and “resignation.”

The heart of a sentence beats in its verb. Noun after noun after noun delays action.

Another example: “There is ample evidence to demonstrate that a high percentage of child bullies were themselves bullied as children.”

Discover bloat in your writing by reading it aloud. Avoid sentences that start with “there is” or “it is” — sentences that careen into wordiness. Keep your writing lean.

For example: “Studies show that a high percentage of bullies were themselves bullied as children.”

That eliminates the weak verb “is” and replaces it with the strong verb “show.”

“To be” verbs infect clean, clear writing. Examples:

“Two features of the new car are illustrative of its versatility.”

“I am of the opinion that we should expand mass transit.”

The verbs — “are” in the first sentence, and “am” in the second — drain energy from communication.

How much stronger to write:

“Two features of the new car illustrate its versatility.”

“I believe we should expand mass transit.”

Pet peeves

Readers have been sending me examples of pet peeves. One involves the spoken word — even in expressions by professional broadcasters.

On CNN, panelists discussed whether the news media should reveal the identity of the whistleblower who complained about President Donald Trump’s dealing with the president of Ukraine.

One journalist said this: “Where we have sort of come down on this is not to publish the name, but to rely on the witnesses who will be testifying.”

“Sort of” come down? They either decided on how to “come down,” or they did not.

The expressions “sort of” and “kind of” have contaminated communication; they have exploded into a new normal that threatens to kill clarity.

 

Gary Gilson, a Twin Cities writing coach and five-time Emmy Award winner in public television, has taught writing-intensive journalism courses at Colorado College for 22 years. Contact him through: www.writebetterwithgary.com.