How to write with clarity and brevity

academics expository writing writing
By Mike P.

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1. Harshly criticize everything you write as you write it

Ask yourself: is this sentence necessary? Could it be five words instead of ten without losing meaning? Is it a digression into something you find interesting useful, or a distraction?

After working in public policy in government and the think tank world for about five years, I’ve learned that clarity and brevity make the difference between getting or not getting your point across to policymakers. Any busy person—a Senate staffer, your boss, your client, your professor—doesn’t want anything but an answer to the question they’ve posed for your piece, and they want that briefly. Write with this in mind.

I’ll give a case in point from my time in the U.S. Senate at the U.S.-China Commission, a foreign policy research agency. I wrote half a dozen mammoth, 15,000-word papers there, but the only feedback I got from my audience was about my five-pagers. The explanation is simple: people read the short pieces, and their eyes glazed over with the longer ones.

If you take Step One seriously, Step Two will be much easier.

2. Edit, edit, edit

I promise that you won’t achieve clarity or brevity with your first draft; no writer does.

The tightness of my prose was essential to the success of my shorter pieces. Still, every piece I published was a mess at first. A senior Senate staffer will notice the mess. I did well by ruthlessly editing my work, and by asking teachers and mentors to help me do that. Never be afraid to ask for help.

What does messy writing look like? Take the phrase “in order to”: what does it say that the word “to” doesn’t say by itself? If you’ve written, “I went to the store in order to buy groceries,” you can easily save two words. You went to buy groceries, not in order to buy groceries. Countless phrases like this can sneak into your writing. Cutting them is crucial.

3. Save your voice

Writing with clarity and brevity doesn’t mean cutting your voice out of a piece, but it does mean honing your prose so that the reader hears nothing but your voice. You’ll find this happens naturally with enough practice with Step One and Step Two. All those “in order to” phrases aren’t you; you’d never say them out loud! They’re fillers that obscure your voice. Read your piece out loud, or have someone read it to you. Does it sound like you?

Getting good at this is hard work. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done. It’s also the most important work I’ve ever done, and it may be for you, too.

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