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Rules for Easy to Understand Writing (1 Viewer)

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lumino

Senior Member
If you could give me one rule for making sure that my writing is easy to understand, what would it be? What you recommend that I follow any of the rules found in style guides, or that I avoid using long or embedded phrases? I read in one article that “The length of a sentence isn’t what makes it hard to understand – it’s how long you have to wait for a phrase to be completed.” (https://www.businessinsider.com/why-this-sentence-is-hard-to-understand-2015-3 ). If this is so, then following the advice in this article may be more beneficial than following any of the rules found in style guides, because if this advice is sound, then it should work even if I neglect to follow those rules, which seem to have as their objective simplicity, the same objective of this advice.

I will also say that one of the members of this forum has written a book which seems to discuss this issue, showing numerous examples of prose with embedded phrases, and comparing them with prose which seems much easier to understand for the lack of such phrases.

It seems that throughout history many great authors wrote sophisticated sentences with many embedded phrases. I had always wanted to write sophisticated sentences, but now I realize that doing so may make my writing hard for readers to understand. But for some reason I don’t like the rules found in style guides, because they seem to limit freedom in style. However, if I ignore such rules, readers may find my prose clunky.

The linguist Steven Pinker, in his style guide, “The Sense of Style”, recommends using a right-branching sentence structure, saying that one should write sentences whose structures can be represented as syntax trees that are right-branching. I am not sure if this is the same advice found in the article I mentioned.
 
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luckyscars

WF Veterans
Write it and then read it back, or have somebody else read it back. If it sounds like gibberish it probably is.

It isn’t rocket science. Your post is easy to understand, so if your fiction somehow isn’t that’s a mystery you need to solve, because you are clearly capable of writing intelligibly...
 

Ralph Rotten

Staff member
Media Manager
If you could give me one rule for making sure that my writing is easy to understand, what would it be? What you recommend that I follow any of the rules found in style guides, or that I avoid using long or embedded phrases? I read in one article that “The length of a sentence isn’t what makes it hard to understand – it’s how long you have to wait for a phrase to be completed.” (https://www.businessinsider.com/why-this-sentence-is-hard-to-understand-2015-3 ). If this is so, then following the advice in this article may be more beneficial than following any of the rules found in style guides, because if this advice is sound, then it should work even if I neglect to follow those rules, which seem to have as their objective simplicity, the same objective of this advice.

I will also say that one of the members of this forum has written a book which seems to discuss this issue, showing numerous examples of prose with embedded phrases, and comparing them with prose which seems much easier to understand for the lack of such phrases.

It seems that throughout history many great authors wrote sophisticated sentences with many embedded phrases. I had always wanted to write sophisticated sentences, but now I realize that doing so may make my writing hard for readers to understand. But for some reason I don’t like the rules found in style guides, because they seem to limit freedom in style. However, if I ignore such rules, readers may find my prose clunky.

The linguist Steven Pinker, in his style guide, “The Sense of Style”, recommends using a right-branching sentence structure, saying that one should write sentences whose structures can be represented as syntax trees that are right-branching. I am not sure if this is the same advice found in the article I mentioned.



I learned to write by reading a couple thousand books.
Really, it was that love of the printed word. I lived in books through all my formative years.
I did theater which made me interested in the writing, so I started paying attention to how writers wrote things.
Copied a few styles, tried my own.
Eventually I write stuff for some asshole with an apple logo. Such a tool this guy.

Had it not been for all those books, I doubt I would be able to grasp writing at the philosophical level.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
I learned to write by reading a couple thousand books.
Really, it was that love of the printed word. I lived in books through all my formative years.
I did theater which made me interested in the writing, so I started paying attention to how writers wrote things.
Copied a few styles, tried my own.
Eventually I write stuff for some asshole with an apple logo. Such a tool this guy.

Had it not been for all those books, I doubt I would be able to grasp writing at the philosophical level.

No need to read books, granddad. Just play video games instead. Reddit says spending four hours a night playing Fortnite is just as good as reading some stinky old novel anyway. Personally, I plan to be the first bestselling author who has never read a single book.
 

JustRob

FoWF
WF Veterans
My personal style consistently employs long sentences but I adhere to the principle that the subordinate structures within them should convey their meaning succinctly and completely so that the concepts conveyed build progressively within the reader's mind.

Reading back a sentence like that last one makes it clear that I actually do adhere to the principle. If my style were different I might have written the above paragraph as below, but I don't think the meaning would have been any easier to understand as a consequence.

My personal style consistently employs long sentences. However, I adhere to the principle that the subordinate structures within them should convey their meaning succinctly and completely. The intention is that the concepts conveyed build progressively within the reader's mind.

Apart from sentence structures I would say that one's choice of words is an important factor in ease of understanding. Writing is meant to be a means of communication, so both the writer and reader need to know the meaning of individual words and the writer ought to choose vocabulary that the reader is likely to understand without having to resort to a dictionary. Yes, reading books is a way of gradually improving one's vocabulary but that isn't a major purpose of most of them.

Recently a news item on our UK TV showed the final of the national spelling competition in the USA. I'm not sure that there is any equivalent here in the UK with such an apparently high profile and of course wonder about the value of spelling words the American way, but that is by the way. What puzzled me was that the children taking part were spelling obscure words that they were unlikely ever to use in real life, if only because so few people would understand what they were saying if they did. Many vocabularies are specific to particular groups of people, who learn the correct spellings in the course of their specialised activities, but I don't comprehend the value of learning such spellings without a relevant context within which to use the words. The competition therefore appears to me simply to be an exercise in memory rather than anything else. What would be more interesting would be these children's abilities to construct complex meaningful sentences employing the words, not that many people would understand them anyway.

I often write about my mind's apparent preternatural ability. That was a very short sentence but if the reader hasn't encountered the word "preternatural" before, and many most likely haven't, then it won't be easy to understand. However, if I also mention that I prefer to use that word instead of the more commonly used word "paranormal" because their implications are somewhat different, then at least the reader comes much closer to understanding the meaning. Only if I explain at great length my own understanding of the meanings of the two words does it become clear to the reader what that sentence was actually meant to convey. Slipping in just one uncommon word can obfuscate meaning more than an ungainly sentence structure can, unless that structure introduces completely unresolvable ambiguities of course. Even then, was "obfuscate" a good choice there or not? Pitching one's vocabulary at the correct level can be overlooked so easily. How those children at that spelling competition will cope with the task in later life one can't imagine.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
It's pretty easy to write competently if one constantly bears in mind the main point of writing is simply to communicate what you are trying to say as clearly as possible. You know, same as with talking.

There is no more perfect a sentence in the English language than "The cat sat on the mat", for it delivers the three component parts of a sentence, subject, verb, object in order with no need for further clarification. That's not to say all sentences should be formed like this, but they should all follow the same basic philosophy: Stay in your lane.

Assuming the subject, verb, and object are the same it is rare that an over-long, complicated, or otherwise 'sophisticated' style delivers information better than a simple style assuming the simple style contains the exact same quantity and complexion of core information. All words, sentences, paragraphs and pages should be written in the simplest style that delivers the full breadth of message.

If you can say what you are trying to say using fewer or more common words and yet proceed with artificially inflating your writing for no other reason than to 'be sophisticated'... you are definitely a bad writer and probably an insufferable human being as well.
 

JustRob

FoWF
WF Veterans
If you can say what you are trying to say using fewer or more common words and yet proceed with artificially inflating your writing for no other reason than to 'be sophisticated'... you are definitely a bad writer and probably an insufferable human being as well.

Does personal style actually have a conscious reason? Reading a reason into a style is a reader's prerogative, but that is all. Perceptions of writers gained from their work can be misleading, which is why fiction readers should suspend not just their disbelief in what the writing tells them but also their belief that the writer actually exists. Keeping one foot in reality, rather than immersing oneself fully in the work itself, seems a peculiar way of reading to me. Anyway, disregarding whether one might be insufferable is apparently a pretty good way to assess one's true value to society in my experience.

The alternative of creating an artificial persona to adopt while writing is a pretty tough way to approach the subject. To have any chance of achieving everything that you need to you have to be yourself, otherwise you can hardly claim the credit for any success that your fictional persona may achieve. I might have written "one" instead of "you" in that last sentence, but that might have appeared an unnecessarily sophisticated style of writing. Actually it's all the same to me and I do both as the mood takes me. Often style is nothing more than an expression of one's mood (you see?) but that can give the writing an extra dimension if one chooses what one writes to suit one's mood.

I am just Rob, nothing more or less. Short staccato sentences don't match the continuous flow of my thoughts, so I tend not to write that way except for effect. We cannot dictate each other's styles just by reference to our own perceptions of readers' preferences. For example, some writers frequently prefer to put a full stop before a conjunction but it isn't necessary and I clearly don't, as this sentence itself demonstrates. In fact I find it distracting when I read pieces by writers who artificially create shorter sentences by this means instead of rearranging their style to favour them, if that is what they want to achieve. As a rule commas aren't required before conjunctions so full stops most certainly aren't. If one could deduce any reason behind a particular style of writing then this one would suggest to me that the writer lacked the confidence to acknowledge that the words that they had written were actually one potentially badly structured long sentence. Was that itself a potentially badly structured long sentence? Only the individual reader can decide that for themselves. All that breaking up long sentences artificially in this way does is to increase the possibility of a badly structured paragraph, but maybe paragraph structure isn't discussed so thoroughly. Short sentences don't in themselves prevent bad structure, full stop.
 

Olly Buckle

Mentor
Patron
Try looking at sentences that stop you, I did it this morning with one:-

"His novels and essays have proved to have a remarkable longevity, and there are few who would say he is not one of the major figures of English letters in the last century."

it was the phrase ' there are few who would say he is not one of' that stopped me, it took a second to figure the positives and negatives and that what he meant was 'most would say he was one of'

Having noticed that of course one starts seeing other things, there is a bit of pretentiousness in the style, contrast:-

'His writing has lasted well, and most would agree he was one of the major literary figures of his century.'

I suppose it depends a bit on who you are writing for, but for me 'easy to understand' means information presented in a logical order, using well known, everyday words, and cut out stuff that is unnecessary to the point being made. If you wish to make more than one point, separate them; mixed ideas have to be mentally separated to be understood.

It was about George Orwell by the way.
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
If you could give me one rule for making sure that my writing is easy to understand, what would it be?

1. Care.

King is my role model for clear and easy reading. To me he has the perfection of Mozart, though I find Mozart boring and I haven't seen anyone else praising King for his expert punctuation and grammar.

I have tried to get that King feeling of perfection in my own writing. But I want to stray farther away from traditional than King does. Isn't the epitome of easy reading "See spot run"? But no one wants to write like that. So there is a balance, and I suggest finding authors you like reading and try to imitate. (Not authors you admire or are famous or that you think are elegant or whatever.)

So, writing clearly is not easy, in my opinion. It's a craft and difficult to learn. No one's perfect. (And I never know how much credit to give to King's editors.)

Right, there are a lot of "tricks" you can learn, because it's hard to judge a single sentence for ease in reading. Those are things that trigger warning bells. I think you mention the problem of one phrase embedded inside another. But I use it in nonfiction for power, though I always check once to make sure I really want it.
 

Ralph Rotten

Staff member
Media Manager
Open a best seller, and don't just read it, look at how they structure their sentences, how they pace their paragraphs, how they build and deliver story components, how they introduce and develop characters.
It's like reverse engineering technology. You take it apart, see what the little things inside do, and make your own.
If you like a writer, then really examine how they build their book, then try to apply that to your writing.
After that, try the same for another writer. Ultimately, your style will be a mashup of everything you ever read.
 

Ralph Rotten

Staff member
Media Manager
And once you find your style, then write, and write, and write, and write, and after about 200,000 words you should be limber.
 

Theglasshouse

WF Veterans
I do "think " ralph made a good observation. You can model the sentences of your favorite writer. Maybe the word order of the sentences to even identify the parts of speech and copy the order. The length of the sentence can be imitated. I have bought a book on its way that details the structure for sentences. It is for dyslexia or might be a good fit for me because of my syntax getting tangled. I need to read everything I write out loud and this will only make my life easier. If you think the syntax is faulty or has errors. After I review the book and if it helps me construct the sentences better than before then I can recommend it to you ( when I have the book when it arrives). There is a one page preview in a well known learning disability website that reviews resources such as assistive technology. It's difficult to recommend books that suit a person's needs. So the person can make the decision if they want to on their own ( their responsibility). I just will mention the book in case you decide to research it further. I also will be using Wynn reader 7.


https://www.amazon.com/dp/0971329796/?tag=writingforu06-20

Google it on ldonline (I think that is the name of the website). There is only a one page preview and it would be the second edition. But it impressed me what I think it shows. It should be helpful to learn the syntax of sentences and is specifically for stories and expository writing.

Narration is sometimes narrated more personally and you can copy what you like of the style without plagiarizing. Show don't tell is good advice and it can inspire you to show. You can imitate the syntax but not the ideas and could come up with a similar style as someone whose style you admire. So by looking at the way things are worded you can hopefully write to a similar effect. Sometimes it can inspire you indirectly. I read this reflecting from someone who posted a book here on the forums on imitating a writer. Sometimes making up a style can be difficult. Imagine imitating Hemingway or someone or because you liked after reading the paragraph you plan to use because it has good prose. Anyways that would be an opinion but I read it somewhere else. I have another book that claims this is a good way to practice writing to interest the reader she argues for all the above reasons. If you felt something by the language used in the story.
 
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Megan Pearson

Senior Member
Recently a news item on our UK TV showed the final of the national spelling competition in the USA. ... What puzzled me was that the children taking part were spelling obscure words that they were unlikely ever to use in real life, if only because so few people would understand what they were saying if they did. Many vocabularies are specific to particular groups of people, who learn the correct spellings in the course of their specialised activities, but I don't comprehend the value of learning such spellings without a relevant context within which to use the words. The competition therefore appears to me simply to be an exercise in memory rather than anything else.

... Pitching one's vocabulary at the correct level can be overlooked so easily. How those children at that spelling competition will cope with the task in later life one can't imagine.

On a lark, I think I have a possible answer to that. Although I have never been in a spelling bee and am, in fact, a pretty poor speller (hello, dictionary!), I am frequently accused of using words no one knows. (Not here, of course, but IRL.) I took the GRE this winter and was appalled at the obscurity of the words employed by the test. (Did I study? Well, no; hadn't planned on taking it. But I did pretty darn good regardless!) At the graduate level, I think there is often this mistaken idea that using overblown formality in style and fancy word choices automatically lends a level of sophistication to one's academic writing when, in actuality, it can detract from the clarity and readability of one's content and message. My own work improved dramatically when I simplified it into plain, everyday English.


What would be more interesting would be these children's abilities to construct complex meaningful sentences employing the words, not that many people would understand them anyway.

Agreed. Just a thought; the American educational system, and the spelling bee, came out of the 19th-century one-room schoolhouse. Back then, rote memorization was a common means of teaching basic knowledge to provide a solid foundation from which to develop higher conceptual thought. From what I have heard (but haven't looked into on my own), a student who completed the complete The McGuffey Reader curriculum would graduate with the knowledge equvalency of a graduate level degree in English today.

I doubt such proficiency is really necessary because, first off, who is going to be able to read what might be written with such fluff? Don't get me wrong, I love the obscure and verbose in small doses, but doesn't the value of what we write increase as it is understood???
 

Olly Buckle

Mentor
Patron
At the graduate level, I think there is often this mistaken idea that using overblown formality in style and fancy word choices automatically lends a level of sophistication to one's academic writing when, in actuality, it can detract from the clarity and readability of one's content and message.

It is tempting to think this might actually be the aim in some cases, 'If they can't understand it not only will they be impressed by my level of understanding, but they will be unable to criticise'. Are they trying to advance learning or maintain a reputation as an academic?
 

JustRob

FoWF
WF Veterans
Try looking at sentences that stop you, I did it this morning with one:-

"His novels and essays have proved to have a remarkable longevity, and there are few who would say he is not one of the major figures of English letters in the last century."

it was the phrase ' there are few who would say he is not one of' that stopped me, it took a second to figure the positives and negatives and that what he meant was 'most would say he was one of'

Having noticed that of course one starts seeing other things, there is a bit of pretentiousness in the style, contrast:-

'His writing has lasted well, and most would agree he was one of the major literary figures of his century.'

I suppose it depends a bit on who you are writing for, but for me 'easy to understand' means information presented in a logical order, using well known, everyday words, and cut out stuff that is unnecessary to the point being made. If you wish to make more than one point, separate them; mixed ideas have to be mentally separated to be understood.

It was about George Orwell by the way.

I think one should be careful about eliminating double negatives as they address trinary situations differently from simple positive statements. In this case the question is what the possibly substantial proportion of people unwilling to express any opinion at all about George Orwell would do. The original wording implies that they would do nothing, which seems likely, but your rewording seems to state that they would agree with your claim. It makes me wonder what means you would employ to force them to do this.

I think the key criticism of the original wording here is that the two negative words "few" and "not" are too far apart for the double negative to be immediately identifiable. In other words, I don't disagree with you about its deficiency but do question your alternative. I offer that statement as a much clearer use of a double negative to impart exactly the meaning intended. Writing a sentence that simultaneously imparts information about all three possibilities in a trinary situation correctly takes some thought and the writer's efforts to emphasise just one of the three may result in clumsy wording. Creating better wording without shifting the original emphasis may be difficult.

Also the phrase "have proved to have a remarkable longevity" implies that the situation will continue into the future while "has lasted well" doesn't. An individual reader may choose to glean out what they perceive as the bare facts from what they see as the writer's opinions but in doing so they are simply forming their own opinions. Whether the writing is good or bad depends on its objective, so is a contextual rather than absolute concept as always.

Writing is only half of the literary process and the writer can only go so far to impart the intended information accurately. The reader also needs to interpret the words accurately for the overall process to be successful. Indeed, the more surprising fiction stories may well depend on complexities such as well balanced trinary statements and ones which impart both hard core facts and less positive information, both of which techniques allow the reader to stray into thinking the wrong thing. That is not bad writing, just a particular style fulfilling a specific purpose. Easy to understand writing may make the possibilities far too obvious and the surprises more difficult to achieve. On the other hand in factual writing a plainer style may be preferable, but those trinary statements may still be used for conciseness and the writer's biased opinions are still likely to creep in.

As in many of the threads here the underlying question to answer is "Why are you writing, this work in particular or indeed any in general?" Be clear on that and you will adopt the most appropriate style.
 
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