How to Bring Clarity to Business Writing

Mary Cullen
Post by Mary Cullen
Originally published July 10, 2013, updated October 19, 2023
How to Bring Clarity to Business Writing

Effective business writing translates complexity into clear language. This article will explain the basics of clarity as well as three fundamental techniques for writing clearer. Take these tips to heart and you'll be well on your way to crafting clear, concise business writing that will capture your readers' attention. 

What is clarity in writing?

Clarity in writing is the ability to communicate ideas and information in a clear and concise manner. It involves using language that is easy to understand and conveying your message in an unambiguous way. Clarity means being able to avoid using overly complicated words and phrases, as well as avoiding technical jargon or acronyms unless they are easily understandable by most readers. Good clarity also means being aware of the audience's reading level, and writing accordingly.

What techniques can be used to ensure maximum clarity in writing?

1. Use simple language: Using shorter words and simpler sentence structures can help make your writing more clear and concise. Avoid jargon or overly technical language that may not be easily understood.

2. Be direct: Get to the point without wasting words. If you can express the same idea in fewer words, do it. Don’t be afraid to omit unnecessary words and phrases.

3. Use active voice: Active voice is more direct and easier to understand than passive voice. In active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action. 

Why is clarity in writing so important?

Clarity in writing is essential in business because it helps to ensure that the intended message is communicated accurately and effectively. Poorly written communication can lead to misunderstandings, confusion, and even miscommunication, which can be dangerous. Writing with clarity also makes it easier for readers to understand the content quickly and easily, as well as helping them to retain the information for future use or reference. This helps reduce frustration and keeps the reader happy., which is important whether it's a customer, colleague, or your boss.


Strategy #1: Liberate your verbs

Verbs are the beating heart of any sentence and hold the key to enhancing the clarity of your business writing.

Smothered verbs, also known as nominalizations, are nouns formed from verbs. While nominalizations are not grammatically wrong, they smother the action verbs with a group of other words necessary to form the noun phrase. Eliminating the smothering words creates a clearer, more forceful sentence.

Use the core verb instead of the smothered (nominalized) version. Smothering phrases often begin with a form of be, give, have, make, or take. The noun in the phrase often ends with -ion or -ment. Here are some examples of smothered verbs with their clearer alternatives:

  • have a suspicion > suspect
  • make an agreement > agree
  • hold a discussion > discuss
  • give instruction to > instruct
  • make a choice > choose
  • extend an invitation > invite

Example 1: The Smothered Verb

Imagine you receive an email from your boss that reads, "I would like to request your assistance in possibly considering a change in our current project plan."

This sentence is a prime example of a smothered verb. The verb "considering" is weighed down by unnecessary words like "possibly" and "would like to request your assistance in ..." By liberating the verb, we can rewrite it as "I want you to review our project plan for potential changes." This revised sentence is not only shorter but also more clear.

Here is another example:

  • Smothered: The authors will be holding a discussion about registration, to better give instruction to the participants who have to make a choice between which sessions to attend. (27 words)
  • Unsmothered: The authors will discuss registration, to better instruct the participants who have to choose which sessions to attend. (18 words)
This is a 33% reduction in length in one sentence. Envision the impact on a long document!
There were six unnecessary words in that single sentence. Un-smothering your verbs is an opportunity to greatly improve your sentence structure and business writing. Active, vibrant, and un-smothered verbs bring both vitality and clarity of sound to your writing.


Example 2: The Action-Packed, Evocative Verb

Now, picture a marketing report stating, "Our team worked on the development of a new marketing strategy."

While this sentence conveys the message, it lacks the energy and engagement that a business document requires. By choosing a more precise, evocative verb, we can transform it into, "Our team pioneered a groundbreaking marketing strategy." "Pioneered" is much more evocative and specific than "worked on." It says more with fewer words.

This revision eliminates unnecessary words and injects vitality into the sentence, making it more appealing to the reader.

Be careful to avoid the cringe-worthy practice of morphing a noun into a verb, which often happens when business units seek to coin a new phrase. “Mainstream” becomes “mainstreamification,” for example.


Example 3: The Bland Verb

Consider a product description that says, "Our product is capable of providing a solution to your problem."

In this case, the verb "providing" is smothered by the preceding wordy phrase. By setting the verb free, we can rephrase it as "Our product solves your problem." This concise sentence gets straight to the point, offering a much clearer message to potential customers. "Solves" is more evocative and engaging than "is capable of providing a solution."

By unsmothering your verbs, you can trim your business writing and significantly enhance clarity. You'll find that you can eliminate at least 25% of unnecessary words simply by allowing verbs to do their job without the weight of add-ons. This makes your writing more concise, engaging, and impactful.

Smothered verbs are not grammatically wrong, but they often lead to timid, dull, wordy writing that fails to captivate your audience.

Strategy #2: The Adverb-Free Approach

Adverbs are those sneaky little words that often creep into our sentences, aiming to add emphasis but often ending up as unnecessary baggage and a lack of clarity. Let's explore why avoiding adverbs can turbocharge your writing, with some real-world examples.

Example 1: The Redundant Adverb

Consider the sentence, "The attendant shouted loudly."

This sentence might seem fine at first glance, but upon closer inspection, we realize that the adverb "loudly" is doing more harm than good. Why? Because the verb "shouted" already implies a loud action. Therefore, we can eliminate the adverb and keep it simple: "The attendant shouted." In this revised sentence, the reader can infer that the shout was loud, making "loudly" redundant.

Example 2: Strong Verbs

Let's tackle the sentence, "The executive ran quickly into the boardroom."

In this case, the adverb "quickly" is tacked onto the verb "ran" in an attempt to emphasize speed. However, a more effective approach is to choose a powerful verb that conveys speed without needing an adverb. Instead of "ran quickly," we can use the verb "sprinted," resulting in the sentence, "The executive sprinted into the boardroom." This revised sentence eliminates the need for the adverb and paints a vivid and energetic picture in the reader's mind.

By avoiding adverbs, you're making your writing more concise, dynamic, and engaging. Powerful verbs convey the desired meaning, rendering adverbs unnecessary and often extraneous. This approach leads to sharper, more impactful writing that captures your reader's attention.

Strategy #3: Harness the Might of Short Words

There was a time when some business writers believed that flaunting lengthy words demonstrated their intellect. Little did they know that simple, short words are often the true champions of effective communication.

Example 1: The Pitfall of Pretentiousness

In the past, it was not uncommon to encounter sentences like, "It has never been a good writing practice to use big words indiscriminately."

While the intention may have been to sound erudite, the result is a sentence bogged down by long words like "indiscriminately."

A clearer, more reader-friendly version would be, "It has never been a good writing practice to use big words needlessly." By substituting the shorter word "needlessly" for "indiscriminately," we maintain clarity without unnecessary complexity.

Example 2: Embrace the Power of Conciseness

Years back, some business writers felt they conveyed their intelligence more by dropping long words when short words actually worked better. Rhetorically, this has never been good writing.

Long words don’t make you sound intelligent unless used very skillfully and judiciously. In the wrong situation, they’ll have the opposite effect, making you sound pretentious and arrogant. They’re also less likely to be understood and more awkward to read.

Hemingway famously championed clear language. I've always loved Hemingway's response when Faulkner criticized him for his limited word choice:

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.

A wordier alternative might read, "Does Faulkner genuinely believe that grand emotions arise from extravagant vocabulary?" Hemingway's version, however, strikes a chord by focusing on the core message with simple, clear words.

Example 3: The Wisdom of Richard Lederer

In his book, "The Miracle of Language," renowned author Richard Lederer advises:

“Use small, old words where you can. If a long word says just what you want to say, do not fear to use it. But know that our tongue is rich in crisp, brisk, swift, short words. Make them the spine and the heart of what you speak and write. Short words are like fast friends. They will not let you down.”

clarity in business writing woman in course

Improve the clarity of your business writing and get instructor feedback.

Our courses all include a full section on clarity including a Clarity Guide PDF downloadable resource.

View Courses
Mary Cullen
Post by Mary Cullen
Originally published July 10, 2013, updated October 19, 2023
Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.