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5 Science-Backed Ways to Write Clearly

If you want to become a better writer, ignore the lore and follow the science.

Key points

  • We read sentences written with active voice faster and comprehend content better than passive sentences.
  • Studies document that we read and recall sentences with less effort when they turn content into micro-stories.
  • Pronouns as subjects send readers backward, but readers comprehend sentences through prediction.
  • Action verbs activate the brain's motor systems, creating semantic richness and enabling rapid comprehension.

Most writers assume they write well. Yet most writers grapple with the reality of writing as a black box.

That is, we know that writing works, but we’re a bit fuzzy on what makes readers grasp the meaning of some sentences instantly and without noticeable effort, while we find others difficult to understand after repeat re-readings. And contrary to popular belief, clear writing has virtually nothing to do with content, sentence length, or writing style.

Instead, we perceive sentences as clear when they map onto the methods our reading brains use to make sense of writing. Knowing the most important ones, including the below, could help make you a better writer.

J. Kelly Brito/Pexels
Source: J. Kelly Brito/Pexels

1. Active voice makes sentences easier to read.

In dozens of studies, researchers have found that readers comprehend sentences more rapidly when sentences reflect the causal order of events. Two factors determine these outcomes.

First, human brains naturally perceive cause and effect, a likely survival mechanism. In fact, infants as young as six months can identify cause and effect, registered as spikes in heart rate and blood pressure.

Second, English sentence structure reflects causes and effects in its ordering of words: subject-verb-object order. In key studies, participants read sentences with active voice at speeds one-third faster than they read sentences in passive voice. More significantly, these same participants misunderstood even simple sentences in passive voice about 25 percent of the time.

As readers, we also perceive active sentences as both shorter and easier to read because active voice typically makes sentences more efficient. Consider the difference between the first sentence below, which relies on passive voice, and the second, which uses active voice.

  • Passive: Among board members, there was an instant agreement to call for a pause in negotiations.
  • Active: Board members instantly agreed to call for a pause in negotiations.

2. Actors or concrete objects turn sentences into micro-stories.

We read sentences with less effort—or cognitive load—when we can clearly see cause and effect, or, “who did what to whom,” as Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky puts it.

Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of South Australia, used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), to spot brains reacting to meaning and word order in sentences. Unsurprisingly, when the subjects of sentences are nouns clearly capable of performing actions, readers process sentences with greater speed and less effort. For actors, writers can choose people, organizations, publications—any individual, group, or item, intentionally created, that generates impact.

In addition to our unconsciously perceiving these sentences as easy to read and recall, we can also more readily identify actors in sentences. Furthermore, these nouns enhance the efficiency of any sentence by paring down its words. Take the examples below:

  • Abstract noun as subject: Virginia Woolf’s examination of the social and economic obstacles female writers faced due to the presumption that women had no place in literary professions and so were instead relegated to the household, particularly resonated with her audience of young women who had struggled to fight for their right to study at their colleges, even after the political successes of the suffragettes.
  • Actor as subject: In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf examined social and economic obstacles female writers faced. Despite the political success of the suffragettes, writers like Woolf battled the perception that women had no place in the literary professions. Thus Woolf’s book resonated with her audience, young women who had to fight for the right to study at their colleges.

3. Pronouns send readers backward, but readers make sense of sentences by anticipating what comes next.

Writers typically love to use pronouns as the subjects of sentences, especially the demonstrative pronouns this, that, these, those, and it, believing that these pronouns help link their sentences. Instead, pronouns save writers time and effort—but significantly cost readers for two likely reasons.

First, readers assume that pronouns refer to a singular noun, rather than a cluster of nouns, a phrase, or even an entire sentence. Second and more importantly, when writers use these pronouns without anchoring nouns, readers slow down and frequently misidentify the pronoun referents. In fact, readers rated writing samples with high numbers of sentences using demonstrative pronouns as being less well-written than sentences that used actors as subjects or pronouns anchored by nouns.

Pronoun as subjects: [Katie Ledecky] estimated that she swims more than 65,000 yards—or about 37 miles—a week. That adds up to 1,900 miles a year, and it means eons of staring at the black line that runs along the bottom of a pool.

Actor as subject: [Katie] Ledecky swims up to 1,900 miles a year, mileage that entails seeming aeons of staring at the black line that runs along the bottom of a pool.

Monstera Production/Pexels
Source: Monstera Production/Pexels

4. Action verbs make sentences more concrete, memorable, and efficient.

For years, old-school newspaper and magazine editors urged writers to use action verbs to enliven sentences.

However, action verbs also offer readers and writers significant benefits in terms of their memorability, as revealed in one study of readers’ recall of verbs. Of the 200 verbs in the study, readers recalled concrete verbs and nouns more accurately than non-action verbs.

In fact, when we read concrete verbs, our brains recruit the sensory-motor system, generating faster reaction times than abstract or non-action verbs, processed outside that system. Even in patients with dementia, action verbs remain among the words patients can identify with advanced disease, due to the richness of semantic associations that action verbs recruit in the brain.

  • Non-action verbs: That the electric trolleys being abandoned in Philadelphia were greener and more efficient was not an insight available at that time.
  • Action Verbs: Philadelphia scrapped its electric trolleys, decades before urban planners turned to greener, more efficient forms of transport.

5. Place subjects and verbs close together.

Over the past 20 years, researchers have focused on models of reading that rely on our understanding of sentence structure, a focus validated by recent studies.

As we read, we predict how sentence structure or syntax unfolds, based on our encounters with thousands of sentences. We also use the specific words we encounter in sentences to verify our predictions, beginning with grammatical subjects, followed by verbs.

As a result, readers struggle to identify subjects and verbs when writers separate them—the more distance between subjects and verbs, the slower the process of identifying them correctly. Moreover, readers make more errors in identifying correct subjects and verbs—crucial to understanding sentences—with increases in the number of words between subjects and verbs, even with relatively simple sentence structure.

Cottonbro Studio/Pexels
Source: Cottonbro Studio/Pexels

Ironically, as writers tackle increasingly complex topics, they typically modify their subjects with phrases and adjective clauses that can place subjects at one end of the sentence and verbs at the opposite end. This separation strains working memory, as readers rely on subject-verb-object order in English to understand the sentence’s meaning. Consider, for example, this sentence from an online news organization:

In Florida, for instance, a bill to eliminate a requirement that students pass an Algebra I end-of-course and 10th-grade English/language arts exams in order to graduate recently cleared the Senate’s education committee.

On the other hand, when we place the subject and verb close together and use modifiers after the verb, we ease readers’ predictions and demands on working memory:

In Florida, the Senate’s education committee recently cleared a bill to eliminate two graduation requirements: an Algebra I end-of-course and 10th-grade English language arts.

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