Clear writing is a technical endeavor, not an artistic one.

And here are its commandments:

1. Thou shalt get to the subject quickly.

2. Thou shalt get to the verb and object quickly.

3. Thou shalt make main characters subjects.

4. Thou shalt make important actions verbs.

5. Thou shalt use examples.

6. Thou shalt put old information before new information.

7. Thou shalt put technical terms at the ends of sentences.

8. Thou shalt use strong subject strings within paragraphs.

9. Thou shalt use topic sentences (hear me out pls).

10. Thou shalt ignore these commandments when drafting.

Honorable mention: Use connecting words, like “if”, “because”, etc. Put another way, use hypotaxis, not parataxis.

In this article, I summarize parts of Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace through these commandments.

1. Thou shalt get to the subject quickly.

We have a problem with sentences that open with long introductory clauses and delay the subject. We have a problem because our minds have to work extra to keep introductory clauses in memory when there is no subject to hook them onto.

For example, (1a) is clearer than (1b) because it gets to the subject quickly:

1a.

First-year students should not load up their schedules with requirements for a particular program if they are not certain about the program of studies they want to pursue, because most change their major fields at least once during their college careers.

1b.

Since most undergraduates students change their major fields of study at least once during their college careers, first-year students who are not certain about the program of studies they want to pursue should not load up their schedules to meet requirements for a particular program.

(1a) is clearer than (1b) because in (1b), we have to read seventeen words to get to the main subject and verb. But in (1a), we get to the main subject and verb in just six words.

So we have a maxim: writers should get to the subject quickly.

This maxim is similar to our next maxim: writers should get to the verb and object quickly.

2. Thou shalt get to the verb and object quickly.

Readers also want to get past a sentence’s main subject to its verb and object.

Therefore:

  • Avoid long, abstract subjects.
  • Avoid interrupting the subject-verb connection.
  • Avoid interrupting the verb-object connection.

You can forgo the first maxim or this one to achieve different rhetoric effects. For example, you can delay the subject to create a dramatic impact. You can read more about this in my guide to writing rich and elegant sentences.

Avoid long abstract subjects

(2a) is clearer than (2b) because it avoids the long abstract subject.

2a.

Abco Inc. was able to pursue opportunities in Africa because it understood what drove profitability in the Asian market for small electronics.

2b.

Abco Inc's understanding of the drivers of its profitability in the Asian Market for small electronics helped it pursue opportunities in Africa.

Avoid interrupting the subject-verb connection

(2c) is clearer than (2d) because it avoids interrupting the subject-verb connection.

2c.

Some scientists, because they write in a style that is impersonal and objective, do not easily communicate with laypeople.

2d.

Some scientists do not easily communicate with laypeople because they write in a style that is impersonal and objective.

I do this sometimes to be artsy 😅 I should practice moderation in this.

Avoid interrupting the verb-object connection

(2e) is clearer than (2f) because it avoids interrupting the verb-object connection:

2e.

We must develop, if we are to become competitive with other companies in our region, a core of knowledge regarding the state of the art in effective industrial organizations.

2f.

If we are to become competitive with other companies in our region, we must develop a core of knowledge regarding the state of the art in effective industrial organizations.

Notice in (2f), the subject is somewhat delayed. Sometimes, that’s fine 🤷‍♀️

Alright, here comes the third commandment. The third commandment—and the fourth one—are the hallmarks of dense academic writing.

3. Thou shalt make main characters subjects.

3a.

Once upon a time, Little Red Riding Hood was walking through the woods.

3b.

Once upon a time, a walk through the woods was taking place on the part of Little Red Riding Hood.

(3a) is clearer. Why?

Well, first, in (3a), the main character, Little Red Riding Hood, is the subject. The subject is no longer the non-character from (3b), walk.

Readers prefer main characters as subjects, because they are more concrete.

Second, in (3a), a specific action, walking is the verb. The verb is no longer the vague action, taking place.

This brings us to the fourth commandment:

4. Thou shalt make important actions verbs.

Let’s look at another example to see how this applies outside of fairy tales.

Here, (4a) is clearer than (4b) because the subjects are main characters and the verbs are important actions. 

4a.

The Federalists argued that popular democracy destabilized government, because they believed that factions tended to further their self-interest at the expense of the common good.

4b.

The Federalists’ argument in regard to the destabilization of government by popular democracy was based on their belief in the tendency of factions to further their self-interest at the expense of the common good.

Notice (4a) avoids using nouns derived from verbs or adjectives, also known as nominalizations. Dismantling nominalizations is oftentimes the fix.

Here are some examples of nominalizations.

Verb → Nominalization

Argue → Argument

Destabilize → Destabilization

Believe → Belief

Adjective → Nominalization

Careless → Carelessness

Different → Difference

Proficient → Proficiency 

OK, so sometimes, the characters and the actions are in nominalizations. But other times, they’re entirely absent from a sentence. In that case, ask, who is doing what? 

Joseph Williams goes into more detail about all this in Lessons 2 and 3 in Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace.

In the meanwhile, try revising this piece by Alex Danco on René Girard. I love Alex Danco and this essay, but the essay does sometimes use abstract nouns and vague verbs. Identify the abstract nouns, vague verbs, and nominalizations.

(Interestingly, I was still moved to read and re-read the piece, which goes to show that clarity isn’t everything in writing.)

OK. Moving on to a maxim for concreteness.

5. Thou shalt use examples.

Examples make your writing more concrete. I can’t emphasize this one enough for us abstract idea folks.

Paul Graham is particularly effective at using examples. Ellen Fishbein points out in an article that seventy percent of Paul Graham’s essays contain the word “example”, usually within the phrase “for example”. She notices that “when Paul Graham introduces an abstract idea, you’re never more than a sentence or two away from a well-picked example.”

When you use an abstract idea, immediately reach for an example to make the idea concrete.

Examples from Paul Graham (h/t to Ellen again):

The more of a noob you are locally, the less of a noob you are globally. For example, if you stay in your home country, you’ll feel less of a noob than if you move to Farawavia, where everything works differently. And yet you’ll know more if you move.
Nothing owns you like fragile stuff. For example, the “good china” so many households have, and whose defining quality is not so much that it’s fun to use, but that one must be especially careful not to break it.

Eugene Wei uses examples in an article to demonstrate his concept, Proof of Work. In doing so, he makes his nonfiction come alive:

When we finally called them down for dinner, I asked them what all the ruckus had been. My friend's daughter proudly held up her phone to show me a recording they'd posted to an app called Musical.ly. It was a lip synch and dance routine replete with their own choreography. They'd rehearsed the piece more times than they could count. It showed. Their faces were shiny with sweat, and they were still breathing hard from the exertion. Proof of work indeed.

Freaking goals 🤩

But back to the commandments LOL

Commandments 6 through 9 are all about cohesion.

6. Thou shalt put old information before new information.

This commandment is the general expression of a specific maxim. I’m going to start with the specific maxim, since it’s easier to grasp.

Here is the maxim:

Sentences are cohesive when last few words of one set up information that appears in the first few words of the next.

This explains why we find (6a) more cohesive than (6b). 

(I’ve bolded the sentence that is the difference between the two paragraphs.)

6a.

Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists studying black holes in space. A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble. So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space around it in puzzling ways.

6b.

Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists studying black holes in space. The collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a markble creates a black hole. So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space around it in puzzling ways.

Our sense of “flow” calls for (6a), because it’s comfortable for a reader to start a sentence about black holes, when it was just referenced. It’s uncomfortable for a reader to start a sentence with “collapse of a dead star”, a new character in the story, because the character hasn’t been referenced before.

This is because in sentences, readers prefer to encounter old, familiar information before they encounter new, unfamiliar information. And the main kind of old, familiar information for readers are words from sentences they just read.

Now, readers also have general knowledge of a piece of writing, which also serves as old, familiar information. For example, if they’re reading a piece on space, they wouldn’t be surprised to see a sentence start with “Astronomers report…”. So you don’t always have to repeat the words of the last sentence.

Joseph Williams mentions in his book that the resulting cohesion across sentences is more important than the clarity of individual sentences. Thus, this commandment to put old information before new, is more important than the commandments to make subjects main characters and verbs important actions.

He also makes the point that we will need to use the passive voice to reach this sense of flow.

This commandment is related to the next one:

7. Thou shalt put technical terms at the ends of sentences.

In the last commandment, we learned readers prefer sentences that start with familiar information and end with unfamiliar information. Similarly, they also prefer sentences that start with the simple, and end with the complex.

Technical terms are new, unfamiliar information. They are also complex. Thus, these terms belong at the ends of sentences.

(7a) uses these terms at the ends of sentences, while (7b) uses them willy nilly. Unsurprisingly, 7a is the clearer version:

7a.

When a muscle contracts, it uses calcium. We must therefore understand how calcium affects muscle cells to understand how cardiac irregularity is controlled by the drugs calledd calcium blockers. The basic unit of muscle contraction is the sarcomere. It has two filaments, one thin and one thick. Those filaments consist of four proteins that regular contraction: actin, tropomysin, and troponin in the thin filament and myosin in the thick one. Muscles contract when the regulatory protein actin in the thin filament intreracts with myosin, an energy-producing or ATPase protein in the thick filament.

7b.

The role of calcium blockers in the control of cardiac irregularity can be seen through an understanding of the role of calcium in the activation of muscle cells. The proteins actin, myosin, tropomyosin, and troponin make up the sarcomere, the basic unit of muscle contraction. The energy-producing, or ATPase, protein myosin makes up its thick filament, while the regulatory proteins actin, tropomyosin, and troponin make up its thin filament. Interaction of myosin and actin triggers muscle contraction.

I bolded the technical terms.

When I think of this principle, I think of “lifting” technical terms up to the ends of sentences. Think balloons 🎈 I don’t know why I think that, but maybe it will help you remember 😂

8. Thou shalt use strong subject strings within paragraphs.

Sentences in a paragraph should cohere. More concretely, sentences in a paragraph should have subjects that highly cohere.

(8a) coheres better than (8b), because in contrast to (8b), its subjects constitute a “relatively small set of related ideas”. 

I’ve underlined the subjects to help you see this:

8a.

Consistent ideas toward the beginnings of sentences help readers understand what a passage is generally about. A sense of coherence arises when a sequence of topics comprises a narrow set of related ideas. But the context of each sentence is lost by seemingly random shifts of topics. Unfocused paragraphs result when that happens.

8b.

Readers understand what a passage is generally about when they see consistent ideas toward the beginnings of sentences, especially in their subjects. They feel a passage is coherent when they read a sequence of topics that focuses on a narrow set of related ideas. But when topics seem to shift randomly, readers lose the context of each sentence. When that happens, they feel they are reading paragraphs that are unfocused and even disorganized.

8a’s subject string: consistent ideas, sense of coherence, context, unfocused paragraphs

8b’s subject string: readers, they, they, they, topics, readers, that, they [readers]

8a’s subject string forms a smaller and more related set of ideas. Thus, readers find it more cohesive.

I… need to work on this one. I write clearly, but not cohesively. I tend to write in internet influencer style (or is it copywriting style?) where each paragraph is stream-of-consciousness and only a few sentences.

Hold me to improving on especially this commandment and the next one:

9. Thou shalt use topic sentences.

A mentor at an internship told me once this lesson: always frame information before presenting it. In a draft for an article for work, I had intermingled low-level details and the high-level concepts, willy nilly.

My mentor encouraged me to order the high-level descriptions before low-level details. If I do that, he explained, readers can hang the low-level details they read on the high-level concepts they already have in memory.

Because of this, I try and tell myself to frame information before presenting it. Now perhaps that’s just my idiosyncratic way of saying: start with the point. Reader, whether its a paragraph, subsection, section, document, or series of documents, start with the point.

Joseph Williams on the subject:

To write a document that readers will think is coherent, open every section, subsection and the whole with a short, easily grasped introductory segment. At the end of the opening segment, put a sentence that states both the point of the unit and the key themes that follow. Such point sentences constitute the outline of the document.

This is what we should salvage from the carcass that is the five paragraph essay.

See how effective this is. Compare the focused (9a) with the unfocused (9b):

9a.

In this study, thirty-sixth grade students were taught to distinguish fact from opinion. They did so successfully during the instruction period, but the effect was inconsistent and less than predicted, and six months after instruction ended, the instruction had no measurable effect. In an essay written before instruction began, the writers failed almost completely to distinguish fact from opinion. In an essay written after four weeks of instruction, the students visibly attempted to distinguish fact from opinion, but did so inconsistently. In three more essays, they distinguished fact from opinion more consistently, but never achieved the predicted level of performance. In a final essay written six months after instruction ended, they did no better than they did in their preinstruction essay. We thus conclude that short-term training to distinguish fact from opinion has no consistent or long-term effect.

9b.

Thirty sixth-grade students wrote essays that were analyzed to determine the effectiveness of eight weeks of training to distinguish fact from opinion. That ability is an important aspect of making sound arguments of any kind. In an essay written before instruction began, the writers failed almost completely to distinguish fact from opinion. In an essay written after four weeks of instruction, the students visibly attempted to distinguish fact from opinion, but did so inconsistently. In three more essays, they distinguished fact from opinion more consistently, but never achieved the predicted level of performance. In a final essay written six months after instruction ended, they did no better than they did in their pre-instruction essay. Their training had some effect on their writing during the instruction period, but it was inconsistent, and six months after instruction it had no measurable effect.

I bolded the topic sentences.

Notice how in (9a), the second topic sentence especially, frames the information that is to come. Also notice the topic sentence in (9a) relates to all the subsequent sentences in the paragraph.

In practice, if a subsequent sentence does not relate, move it or cut it. I need to work on this.

Topic sentences in the wild

Laila from Lailaland uses topic sentences well in this article; she forgoes them for narrative-style paragraphs and seizes them for nonfiction-style paragraphs.

Narrative style: “I slept better than I had in years... I played hide and seek with the servants’ kids on my street… I started kickboxing... I met models and learned to pose... I hid from my “real world” with no definitive plans to return.”

Nonfiction style: “But there are, of course, reasons to return. <Then she lists the reasons to return.>”

10. Thou shalt ignore these commandments when drafting.

Forget these commandments when drafting: they slow us down.

But when revising? Use these ten commandments as a checklist for clear and cohesive writing.