Chapter 8. Edit for Clarity

Clarity is the most important style edit. Your goal for the clarity edit is that each sentence has only one interpretation. If your document tells your readers what they need to know, in the right order, and has only one interpretation, your document succeeds.

Use these seven techniques to ensure that your sentences are clear:

  • 8.1 Use concrete and specific words.

  • 8.2 Use active voice.

  • 8.3 Simplify tense: Stay in present tense when possible.

  • 8.4 Avoid the helping verbs would, should, and could.

  • 8.5 Identify and replace ambiguous pronouns.

  • 8.6 Use standard English words.

  • 8.7 Check sentences for misplaced or dangling modifiers.

Much ambiguity comes from bad habits we learned in school. In our effort to avoid repeating words and the pronoun I, we used passive voice. Our teachers encouraged us to demonstrate our mastery of all 12 verb tenses, whether useful or not. They suggested we use helping verbs such as would, should, and could to create a nicer tone. All these bad habits cause ambiguity.

Some scientists defend ambiguous language because they cannot be certain if their theories work or their experiments are accurate. They fear false precision. Lawyers sometimes defend ambiguous language in contracts because they cannot foresee every contingency. They do not want to create unnecessary restrictions or create loopholes by omitting a contingency. Although these problems are real, ambiguous language is the wrong remedy.

Imprecise data or unforeseen contingencies are ...

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