Four Guidelines to Strengthen Non-Fiction Writing
Impactful analysis depends on topic-specific knowledge and insights, while the communication of that analysis, whether in writing or out loud, leverages broadly available approaches. This essay focuses on four ways to clarify and strengthen written blogs, memos, essays, and articles.
First, keep text accessible with snackable paragraphs and well-understood words. Fat, long paragraphs, those exceeding 250 words or six sentences, intimidate readers. Break them down to encourage readers to continue from one to the next.
Also, as George Orwell wrote, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” Use the simplest words available to communicate the message. If you choose a fifty-cent word, confirm that its use and context clearly communicate its meaning to the reader.
Second, and quoting from The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, “Omit needless words!” Avoid numbing qualifiers, unnecessary adjectives, and friendless adverbs. For example, the word “very” has no intrinsic meaning and does more for the writer than for the reader. While it serves well in dialogue, it weakens analysis. To enhance a point, find a better word than “very” or, better yet, do without.
Adverbs modify verbs and adjectives but lack the specificity of data or context. Compare “wood prices barely moved last quarter” to “wood prices increased 1% last quarter, the smallest change in two years.” Let the data speak.
In addition, reduce the use of “have” and “had” by better understanding the past perfect tense, which applies to talking about something that happened before something else. “The fund had looked at ten deals before buying one.” Inefficient writing often misuses and overuses the past perfect. Compare “last year, lumber prices had stabilized” to “last year, lumber prices stabilized.” Only use past perfect when trying to convey a sequence of events.
Unnecessary words are sometimes a byproduct of having nothing to say. Ruthlessly cut repetitive sentences and stale observations. “This timber market is truly exceptional. It has so much opportunity. It is really something.” What does that mean? Nothing. As Elmore Leonard advises in 10 Rules of Writing, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
Third, use the active voice to strengthen key points and conclusions. In the sentence “timber values rose”, the subject (timber values) does something active (rose). In “timber values were rising”, something happens to the subject (thus, passively). While the passive voice is less direct or explicit, it may be appropriate if specific causes, conclusions, or effects are unclear. Otherwise, avoid the passive voice and keep it active.
Fourth, make ideas your own and back them up. Connect ideas to the data and your own experiences. Developing insights and nuance may include re-reading, reflecting, and revising. In short, take the time to think about the information and ideas to develop your perspectives. You will write more clearly and powerfully after internalizing ideas in your voice supported by your experience.
Avoid unsubstantiated assertions. Writing or saying things unsupported by data or examples reflects poorly on everything else in your body of work (and that of your colleagues). Do not use facts or quotes blindly or inappropriately; confirm their relevance and context. Defend every claim with evidence and logic without getting out over your skis.
To close, I offer a two-phrase summary of The Elements of Style: “Omit needless words; let every word tell.” Dispense with the garnish and deliver the meat. Clear writing communicates clarified thinking.
 A former professor of mine, Richard Valelly, once told our class “NEVER use a word you don’t know the meaning of. If you have the slightest doubt, pause to consult a dictionary.” Still good advice.
 As a bonus, using the active voice often reduces needless words, too.