In content, there’s not much worse than bad writing.
Bad writing can turn a great idea into muddled gibberish.
Bad writing can make you sound silly or unintelligent – even if you’re a smart cookie.
Bad writing is easy to spot but notoriously difficult to fix if you don’t know what you’re doing.
As it turns out, writing clear sentences is both an art and a science.
When you get it right, your content sings.
On the flip side, when you get it wrong, you end up complicating simple ideas. You lead your readers down confusing paths and lose your overall impact.
What’s a writer to do?
Learn how to write clear sentences. Learn how to cut the fat from your writing to improve clarity, but keep your unique voice intact. Today, we’re sharing our best tips to help you do it. Ready to tighten up your writing?
Clear writing is key to effective copy that speaks to your readers in your #contentmarketing. @JuliaEMcCoy shares 6 simple tips to writing clearer sentences that you can implement right away. Click To Tweet
Your Guide to Writing Clear Sentences: Our 6 Top Tips
1. Beware Meaningless Filler Words
If you’re not paying attention, meaningless filler words can sneak into your writing. Like so:
If you’re not paying attention, there are meaningless filler words that can sneak into your writing.
These bloat your sentences with useless gunk. The most common perpetrators include the phrases you see in bold above, plus their variations:
“It” or “there” + “be” verbs:
- There are
- There is
- There were
- It is
- It was
Generally, most sentences can live without “it” or “there” + a “be” verb (is, are, was, were) followed by a noun and a relative clause (that, which, who). These types of phrases are called expletive constructions.
In other words, they have no meaning. They don’t help your sentences. Get rid of them!
It was my favorite time of year because of that crisp weather and falling leaves.
Slash those filler words, and you get a sentence that’s much more concise and to the point:
My favorite time of year has crisp weather and falling leaves.
Once you’re cognizant of filler words, you’ll start catching yourself using them. Pretty soon, your reflex will be to nix them altogether. You’ll be writing clear sentences unconsciously rather than cluttering them up.
2. Self-Edit & Bring in an Outside Editor
The best ways to catch and eliminate those filler words from point #1? Self-edit AND bring in an outside editor to check your work.
Because ruthless, constant editing is one of the best methods to clarify and simplify your writing. Multiple editing passes help distill your thoughts and ideas down to their clearest forms.
This is also a top tip from one of my copywriting heroes, Henneke Duistermaat.
In my interview with her for The Write Podcast, she mentions paying attention to the corrections your editor makes. Listen to their feedback! That way, you’ll learn as you move forward and avoid committing those errors again.
You’ll be writing clearer sentences in no time.
Tune into this episode for more writing tips from Henneke!
3. Write Shorter to Write Clearer
Do your sentences tend to go on… and on… and on?
To write clear sentences, write shorter. Slash your sentences in half. Insert periods instead of commas.
Take this example from a fashion blog:
I’ve been wearing a lot of old favorites and remixing closet classics this season, but if there’s one thing I can’t resist buying every autumn it’s a cozy knit!
It’s unnecessarily long. The main idea gets lost along the way (she can’t resist a cozy knit). If we shorten this up, we can make it clearer and more impactful.
For instance, we can start by splitting the sentence in two. All we have to do is look for the comma and add a period, instead:
I’ve been wearing a lot of old favorites and remixing closet classics this season. But, if there’s one thing I can’t resist buying every autumn, it’s a cozy knit!
Better. Now we can omit filler words and cut this down even more:
I’ve been wearing lots of old favorites and remixing closet classics this season. But, every autumn, I can’t resist buying a cozy knit!
The shorter sentences help us follow this train of thought better. The whole thing is clearer and less meandering, so we get to the point quicker. (This helps hold your readers’ interest!)
Shorter sentences help readers follow your train of thought better. This and more #copywriting tips in this new blog post by @JuliaEMcCoy. Click To Tweet
Speaking of the main point, that’s another great tip to remember:
4. Don’t Bury the Lede (The Main Subject of Your Sentences)
In journalism-speak, the “lede” is the main subject of your writing. (Copy editors and journalists started spelling it “lede” to help distinguish it from the “lead” in typesetting.)
When you “bury the lede,” you unintentionally hide the main point of your writing.
Not good. Why?
Because clear sentences begin with the main subject.
This is a good example of burying the lede from The MLA Style Center:
“Known for her unmatched skills as a hostess – after all, she had been a debutante who became a socialite whose husband sat on the boards of half a dozen of the city’s most prestigious cultural organizations – Mary felt right at home discussing her plan for the summer fund-raising luncheon with the museum director.”
The subject of this uber-long sentence is Mary. Where is Mary? We can’t find her in the sentence until 209 characters have gone by.
Another good example of burying the lede in a sentence: using the passive voice.
Her plan for the summer fundraising luncheon was discussed by Mary and the museum director.
Passive voice buries the subject of the sentence at the end. We have no idea who is discussing the plan for summer fundraising until the very last words.
Instead, we should put the subject at the beginning:
Mary and the museum director discussed her plan for the summer fundraising luncheon.
That way, our readers won’t have to play detective to figure out who (or what) we’re talking about. This is a major key to writing clear sentences.
5. Avoid Redundancies to Improve Sentence Clarity
Redundancy can be a clear sentence killer.
It happens when you add different words with the same meaning to a sentence, or repeat words or phrases unnecessarily.
The above example of redundancy is obvious. However, it can be subtle, too:
- We’re planning to meet at 12 o’clock midnight.
- Don’t revert back to your old ways.
- She will briefly summarize the report.
All of the above sentences are short, but they can be clarified by removing the redundancies.
- We’re planning to meet at midnight. (12 o’clock and midnight both refer to 12:00 a.m.)
- Don’t revert to your old ways. (“Revert” means to return or go back to a previous state.)
- She will summarize the report. (A summary is brief by definition.)
This chart from the Speak Good English group on Facebook is a great resource to help you avoid common redundancies:
Do your readers have to play detective to figure out who (or what) you’re talking about? @JuliaEMcCoy shares #copywriting tips for clearer, crisper writing in this new blog post. Click To Tweet
6. Use Writing Tools to Hone Your Craft
Final tip: Don’t forget to use all the writing tools at your disposal. There are plenty of great ones out there that can help you craft clearer sentences.
- I regularly recommend Hemingway Editor because it focuses on simplifying your writing, Hemingway-style.
- To check out the readability score of your writing, plug it into Readable.io. It tells you what education level a person needs to be able to understand your work. The lower the grade level score, the easier it is to read.
- Adding the Grammarly plug-in to your word processor or browser is a good way to catch usage errors while you self-edit.
Writing Clear Sentences: It’s in the Bag
The key to writing clear sentences is recognizing when your grammar gets sloppy. It’s knowing what filler words look like and how passive voice sounds.
The best way to learn all of these concepts is to edit, edit, edit.
Self-edit all your writing. Then, hand your writing over to a trusted editor. Listen carefully to their feedback and add it to your writing toolbox.
If you’re still struggling, enlist high-quality editing and grammar tools. They’ll help whittle down your writing further.
Don’t worry: You CAN and WILL improve. It just takes practice! ✍️