Published on February 15, 2013

All writing should be as clear as an open window on a sunny day.
All writing should be as clear as an open window on a sunny day.

I often hear engineers complain about the lack of clarity in the writing they read. Sometimes this complaint is phrased in terms like “this report doesn’t flow,” or “I can’t understand what the point of this memo is.”  Teaching engineering students to write clearly is my job, of course, and teaching clarity is one of my three favorite lessons to teach.  I like these so much that I have labeled them “Golden” Rules, rules for writing so valuable that they are golden.  In fact, if you can be the engineer in the room who can apply the Golden Rule of Clarity, I am sure that you will be seen as the most valuable employee.

I borrow this lesson on clarity from Joesph Williams’ book Style:  Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace.  This book is an oldie and a goodie, since it gives writers specific tools that can help highlight unclear writing and point toward concrete strategies for improving it.

First, you can test any sentence for clarity by underlining the first 5-6 words, or all the words that stand between the start of the sentence and the verb of that sentence. If there are more than 5 or 6 words before the reader gets to the verb, then you have a problem with clarity.

Here is an example:

Decisions in regard to the administration of medication despite the inability of irrational patients voluntarily appearing in Trauma Centers to provide legal consent rest with a physician alone.

This sentence is unclear because it takes too long for the reader to find the action of the sentence (which is “rest”).  The other problem is knowing who the “actor” of the sentence is.  “Decisions” is not an actor, since only human beings can make decisions (in this case, the actor is the “physician”).  So if the writer of the sentence identifies the actor of the sentence and reduces the obstacles that stand between the actor and the action, then a revised sentence can be clear:

When a patient voluntarily appears at a Trauma Center but behaves so irrationally that he cannot legally consent to treatment, only a physician can decide whether to administer medication.

Now that you have the first Golden Rule, I’m sure you will be eager to read the other two, which will appear in this blog very soon.