Expressing Hard Ideas Clearly

Decluttering Your Writing

by Heather Jane McWhinney

Do you want to express hard ideas in crisp, powerful sentence? Even better, do you want to engage your readers? In this blog, I want to show you how to “declutter” your sentences, ejecting excess words and stripping the writing of unnecessary complexity.

There once was a time when convoluted sentences and long words were the hallmark of academic sophistication. No longer. Writing plainly is the new requirement. Of course, you can’t avoid the specialized terms your field uses, but no reader wants to decipher long words when shorter ones will do.

Here are some fancy words and phrases on my discard pile and some simpler replacements.

Discards Replacements
based on, due to, in light of … the fact that because, as, since
despite, in spite of … the fact that although
for the purpose of for
in order to to
has the ability/capacity to can
has the potential to could
in regard to, regarding about, on
it is interesting to note that interestingly
it is necessary to rephrase
utilize use

Read this sentence out loud.

In spite of the fact that high-resolution computer models utilized in climate research have the capacity to project extreme climate events, it is necessary to consider the challenges that remain due to uncertainty in regard to modeling the future climate.

Did you have to read this sentence twice to get the point? I know I did. Now read this revised sentence:

High-resolution computer models can project extreme climate events, but challenges remain because modelling the future climate is uncertain.

This sentence has kept the technical language, so it hasn’t lost its academic tone, but the writer has thrown 22 unnecessary words on the discard pile.

Let’s look at another sentence.

Despite the fact that there are times when governments find it necessary to raise capital and engage in deficit financing to acquire the resources necessary to overcome temporary shortfalls and to invest in stimulating growth (during times of national crises such as a war or global pandemic), it must be recognized that routinely financing public programs in this way can lead to growing debt problems and result in decreased policy autonomy.

Now read the revised sentence.

Governments must sometimes raise capital and finance deficits to overcome temporary shortfalls and stimulate growth during crises such as wars and pandemics. However, routinely financing public programs in this way can create debt problems and reduce policy autonomy.

In the revised version, the writer has purged 33 words and divided the sentence into two. The sentence is still academic because it has retained all the specialized terms. What a difference these changes make to readability!

I advise students to use several strategies to declutter their writing. First, declutter when you revise, not when you write your early drafts. Stopping to purge words and shorten sentences can break your train of thought. Second, read your sentences out loud. Ask yourself if your reader will understand the sentence after reading it only once. If the answer is “no,” revise the sentence. Third, read opinion pieces and editorials in good newspapers like The Globe and MailThe Guardian, and The New York Times. Top journalists are masters of clear, crisp prose. Of course, journalistic writing is more colloquial than academic writing, but the more you read good journalism, the better your academic writing will be.

I’m grateful to two former students for allowing me to use their work in this blog. They both now write in plain language, and their readers thank them for it.

Watch for future blogs at this site on how to declutter your writing.

Heather Jane McWhinney

Heather McWhinney is a long-time academic editor and writing coach. Formerly graduate writing specialist at the University of Saskatchewan, Heather has helped thousands of students and professors become better writers. Her blog offers tips for expressing hard ideas clearly.
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