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Find Clarity: 8 Quick Fixes for Cluttered Writing

by Rolling Stone Culture Council / Branding and Publishing

Clarity is the holy grail in business writing. A clear, persuasive article is a pleasure to read and share.

Yet even the best writers struggle to achieve this. Explaining what you know best — your business, your industry, the problems you personally solve every day — is hard to do in 800 words.

In my experience, the words themselves are what trip us up and make a potentially great article hard to follow, so below are some rules that can help you write with precision and confidence. Like most rules, they’re often broken, and that's OK. But the next time you’re struggling to get your thoughts down, run your content through this checklist. It really works. (And if you're a member, our editorial team will help -- these rules are pulled right from our playbook!)

Nix the adverbs.

The easiest, fastest way to clarify your writing is to get rid of the adverbs — and perhaps some adjectives — cluttering up your sentences. As Stephen King wrote, “Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind…With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly.”

Compare the two examples below. The first is long and melodramatic; the second, clear and to the point:

I was extremely distraught when my rock-star assistant abruptly quit. I tried mightily to convince her to stay, but she resolutely refused.

I was distraught when my rock-star assistant quit. I tried to convince her to stay, but she refused.

Skip the passive voice.

Use an active voice wherever possible. Passive voice often creates a false sense of distance (not to mention wordiness), while you want to create connection and clarity.

Passive: Our company has been decimated by high turnover.

Active: High turnover decimated our business.

You can use passive voice occasionally, but an article filled with passive voice sounds, well, passive.

Don’t rely on clichés and analogies to tell your story.

Figurative language is great in fiction. In a business article, unless you are using a metaphor to illustrate a difficult subject, it’s usually a distraction. Particularly when your entire article is an analogy (e.g. “running a business is like a marathon”), you risk alienating readers who need to work twice as hard to figure out whether you’re talking about business or marathons.

Try rewriting your article without using the analogy at all — or rewriting a sentence without a cliché. I think you’ll find it’s far more effective and clear, and more succinct too. Compare these two examples:

Running a business is a lot like a marathon. While you can train, there’s no real preparation for it, and you often end up doubting yourself during the hardest stretches. The key is to take it one step at a time and pay attention to your areas of weakness — those moments when you consider dropping out of the race entirely — and use them to learn from later.

Running a business is hard. There’s no real preparation for it, and you often doubt yourself. The key is to pay attention to your areas of weakness and learn from them later.

Break up long blocks of text.

If you get stuck, try varying your syntax and use punctuation and styling (like subheadings, bullets, etc.) to break your thoughts into organized sections. While not every article benefits from this kind of structure, it can be very helpful in how-to content as long as each section is relevant and supports your main point.

Bonus: It’s much easier to see what you need to cut when you organize your piece this way.

Cut the fat.

The easiest way to trim the fat is to ask yourself, about every section, paragraph and even sentence, “Is this necessary? Does this further my main point? Does it stand on its own, or is this redundant?”

When we overwrite, it’s usually because we fear the reader won’t understand us, so we re-state the same points several times over in different ways. This often happens after an introduction — even though the writer already stated the problem, he or she re-states it in greater detail immediately below.

Trust your reader. They are much smarter than you think.

Be credible.

Do we know who you are and why you are writing? Are you really an expert on X topic, or could your article have been written by anyone on the Internet? For instance, an article on “how to market a small business” is too broad a topic for one person to cover and, chances are, you are not an expert on marketing for every small business. But “4 Tips for Using Email Marketing to Educate Subscribers” offers a clear benefit to the reader — especially if you have experience in this area that you can use as a reference point.

Match your tone to your audience.

Even in a business article, jargon is generally unnecessary — so are 50-cent words. If you have to use industry terminology, explain it clearly first. Business readers, by definition, want succinct, actionable content, and are attracted to a relatable voice; think about how you’d talk to a colleague or fellow industry leader, and try to capture that voice in your writing.

Don’t rehash what we already know (or make claims you can’t support).

Put another way, don’t write for content’s sake — write because you must. If you know why you are writing — to teach, comment on a trend, dissect new research or information or share a dissenting opinion — this point won’t apply to you. But if you’re uncertain, do your research. Don’t echo what others have said; offer a fresh insight.

Give your reader a reason to trust you and engage with your findings or your advice. That’s what this is all about.

On that note, one final point: Don’t sell. Don’t promote. If you offer a service or product, don’t write an article about why the reader needs your service or product (or link to it) in your article. Not only will this ensure you don’t get published, it's a surefire way to make your reader distrust you. There’s a right time and a context to sell, and the best thought leaders know the difference.

This is one of a series of posts on how Rolling Stone Culture Council members can get the most from their publishing benefits. If you're not yet a member, find out if you're eligible.

Rolling Stone Culture Council is an invitation-only community for innovators and tastemakers on the cutting edge of what’s new in culture. Learn more.