Focus on Clarity

Five Super Fantastic Tips to Improve Your Writing

When I’m editing (either corporate technical and marketing materials or student papers at BCIT), I pay particular attention to sentence construction. Technical and business writing is prone to awkward sentence construction, because the material is so complex. And marketing writing only compounds the problem, because the writer feels compelled to decorate the writing with as many superlatives as possible.

Here are five tips I use to keep my writing clear:

1. Avoid nominalization. Most people are familiar with it even if they don’t know what it’s called. In nominalized writing, the writer turns verbs into nouns. It’s most common in bureaucratic writing, and I believe, originates from a writer’s attempt to gain ground on the target audience—it talks down to its readers.

Here’s an example:

Improve driver safety by notification of Emergency through panic button depression.

You can see that nominalization also results in a lot of passive voice. By returning the nominalized verbs into true verbs, your sentence instantly has more life:

To improve driver safety, notify Emergency by pressing the panic button.

2. Keep the subject and its corresponding verb as close to each other as possible.
Here’s an example:

“This concept demonstrates how simple data related to, for example, salt dispensed on the public highways during the winter months when combined and processed with external data like geo-spatial, traffic fatality, and weather data can be turned into useful information.”

“This concept demonstrates how simple data can be turned into useful information (for example, data from salt dispensed on the public highways during the winter months becomes useful information when combined and processed with external data such as geo-spatial, traffic fatality, and weather data).”

3. Move parenthetic content away from the core of the sentence. In the example above, I’ve moved the parenthetic material away from the structural core of the sentence, but mirrored the point to reinforce the meaning. Parenthetic content is not always contained in parentheses (brackets). You can also use commas and even em dashes to indicate a parenthetic idea. I distinguish each as follows:

  • Parentheses – an idea entirely outside the structural core of the sentence; a lesser point.
  • Comma – a subordinate idea, but closely related to the core of the sentence (i.e., the sentence would be lessened without it).
  • Em dash – a non related point that has a slightly exclamatory quality to it. It’s unrelated to the core meaning, but it’s an important aside—I use them a lot in web writing!

4. Check your logic. The most common logic error in grammar has a name: It’s called the dangling modifier. It occurs in sentences in which the doer is unclear (either because the sentence carries two or more doers or it’s omitted). It’s often the source of humour, as in the famous quote of Groucho Marx, “Last night, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How the elephant got into my pajamas, I’ll never know”.

Here’s an example taken from technical writing:

“The currently open table appears in the top-left corner of the window.”

“Open” in this case is not a verb; it’s an adjective. The intransitive verb “appears” is doing whatever action it can. “Currently” is a misplaced modifier. It should read, “The open table currently appears in the top-left corner of the window.”

5. Limit your use of adjectives and other superlatives. I call this “super fantastic writing”, because it’s used when “fantastic writing” just isn’t good enough. I recently edited a document that made the claim “…saving you more than millions of dollars in lost revenues”. As in point four above (Check your logic), it just doesn’t make any sense. Without an exact number, you can’t add a superlative (“more than”). As an editor, it’s sometimes difficult to persuade writers to release their white-knuckled hold on such writing—but it must be done. Decorating your writing with lots of adjectives, superlatives, and other do-dads doesn’t make it better or more persuasive.

Writing for the Web: Clarity 7/7

Use Standard English

Replace the non-standard English words with their English equivalents. Word constructs like ‘and/or’ and ‘he/she’ are technically not words, so you should avoid them as much as possible. This is a good approach, because it’s easy to rely too much on them even when there is really not logical need. Take for example, “You can call and/or write to request a free estimate”. There’s no real need to say ‘and/or’ in such a situation.

How would you rewrite the following to remove and replace non English words?

  • Our global portfolio (accessed via our web site) invests in U.S. and/or foreign markets (i.e., commodities).

Writing for the Web: Clarity 5/7

Avoid Ambiguous Pronouns

The best way to avoid this kind of confusion (what kind of confusion? The confusion that results from ambiguous pronouns), is to read your copy carefully checking that you can easily identify the noun that belongs to the pronoun. If more than one noun emerges as a possibility, replace the pronoun with its intended noun.

What’s rolling toward second base?

  • The ball
  • The wall
  • Winfield’s head

Writing for the Web: Clarity 4/7

Avoid Helping Verbs (Might, May, Would, Should, and Could)

Helping verbs, also called auxiliary verbs, are tricky for two reasons: they can have multiple meanings and those meanings are sometimes a matter of interpretation.

EXAMPLE: “When you complete your timesheet, you should be paid.”

If you insert may instead of should, implies possibility or permission.

EXAMPLE: “When you complete your timesheet, you will be paid.”

Writing for the Web: Clarity 6/7

Check Sentences for Misplaced or Dangling Modifiers

Of all grammatical errors, misplaced and dangling modifiers cause the most hilartity. Let’s face it, they’re just plain fun (as long as it’s not you who writes them). In the words of Groucho Marx, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.”

  • A misplaced modifier is confusing because, although the modifier may be correct, it’s modifying the wrong word in the sentence.”We almost ate all the turkey” is confusing because it’s not possible to “almost eat” something. The correction is, “We ate almost all the turkey”.
  • A dangling modifier is confusing because the doer of the action is unclear. “After waiting for three hours, the train left the station.” Who did the waiting—you or the train? It’s not clear.

Another example: “It wasn’t long before the two got engaged, lived in several Canadian cities, pursued their separate career paths and explored their new surroundings while weighing the pros and cons of each.”

What are they weighing the pros and cons of?

  • Their surroundings
  • Their separate career paths
  • Several Canadian cities
  • Their engagement
  • All of the above

Writing for the Web: Clarity 3/7

Simplify the Tense

Unless you’re a time traveller (and therefore comfortable with temporal paradoxes), the best rule of thumb is to stick to the present tense as much as possible and make occasional forays to other tenses as needed.

English has twelve tenses. Present tense is the only real tense—all the others are factors of our imagination, so don’t make time travellers of your readers by hiking around through your imaginary temporal landscapes.

EXAMPLE: “Madonna removed her wedding ring before she appeared last week sparking rumours that her marriage is on the rocks.”

Writing for the Web: Clarity 2/7

Use Active Voice

Tricky Dick

The phrase, “Mistakes were made” is attributed to US President, Richard Nixon, to acknowledge that the Watergate situation was mishandled. He could have spoken in active voice and said, “Mistakes were made by me” or better still, “I made mistakes”, but he evaded direct admission of responsibility and thereby went down to history as Tricky Dick.

There are three times when it’s appropriate to write in the passive voice:

  • When the doer is unknown. “My bass clarinet was removed.”
  • When the doer is unimportant. “The lab rats were given a placebo.”
  • To protect the doer from embarrassment. “You were overcharged for your purchase.”

TIP: In technical writing, you can distinguish between general concepts and action-oriented procedures by writing the former in passive voice and the latter in active.

Using active voice in web writing adds interest and action to your writing. Good sentences begin with a clearly stated subject (the doer) and a strong verb (action). While it is a commonly used verb, “to be” is passive as it describes a state of being rather than doing. So the more you use “to be”, the more passive sounding your writing will be. Also, some verbs are weaker than others. The verb “to understand” is weaker, because it is harder to quantify and tends to get lumped with another verb that’s doing the real work.

Try writing the following sentences in the active voice.

  • The road was crossed by the children.
  • The paint is then allowed to dry for one hour.

EXAMPLE: To understand how to run for President of the United States, you must have friends in high places.

Writing for the Web: Clarity 1/7


Futurama - Stuff n' Junk (or whatever)Using concrete specific words won’t necessarily make your writing shorter, but it will make it more interesting to read. Consider the following:

“A number of factors must be addressed to ensure this effort meets its objectives within the proposed time frame.”


  • Several – how many?
  • Numerous – What number?
  • Various – Which?
  • Very – use your imagination!

And of course:

  • Stuff
  • Junk
  • Whatever!

Rule: Use Concrete Specific Words

Writing for the Web, It’s a Digital Life

It’s a Digital Life

It's a digital lifeWhen writing for the web, you are writing for an audience that’s mostly fickle and distracted. There’s just too much information out there, so readers flit about looking for writing that’s most easily consummable to them. If they encounter any challenge to their reading (poor organization, rambling prose, padded sentences), they bail.

The maxim, “Ride the horse in the direction it’s headed” is appropriate here. If you organize your information in a way that follows how people read, your writing is more likely to be read. Web readers read differently in the following ways:

  • They don’t read screens as easily as pages.
  • They tend to scan and forage for the content they want.
  • They don’t read in a linear fashion—they follow links and move about.

Generally, to get your writing read, write shorter sentences. This principle is widely known, but little information is ever provided on how to write shorter sentences. Over the  next 14 days, I will describe ways to improve the readability of your writing based on the following web-writing principles: clarity and economy. Starting tomorrow…clarity.

Jeffrey Ryan, Composer-in-Residence, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

I had seen other sites designed by Jason, and was impressed by what I saw. I could not be happier with the results. The graphic design is clean, crisp, bold and contemporary. Every visual element – colour, spacing, font, icon – has been carefully researched and selected to create a unified and eye-catching design and layout, while the content is effectively and efficiently organised in a clear and easy-to-navigate format. From the big picture to the smallest detail, Jason has managed to capture exactly the qualities of personality and professionalism that I wanted my site to present to the world.