Writing for the United Nations


VI. Clarity in writing


"Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly."

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, proposition 4.116

Consider how the following two paragraphs differ: one is clear and to the point. The other is trying to convey the same concept, but the meaning is obscured by use of jargon and sloppy sentence construction. Note also that the first paragraph is one long sentence, while the second paragraph contains three simple sentences.

     There is a need for flexible resource allocation procedures to allow updating of investment decisions (capital and revenue) so that at any given point in time of the planning design process an optimum investment decision can be made rather than one which may have been valid at the inception of planning but has become progressively non-optimal.

     There are several very good reasons why the farmer, busy man as he is, should keep proper records of his business. It is the only way in which he can find out how much profit he has made, and how one year's profit compares with another. It helps him to manage his farm efficiently, and shows him how the various operations compare in outlay and in receipts.

From The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

Goals: clear, simple, concise, action-oriented writing

In order to achieve the goals of clarity, simplicity and conciseness, W. H. Hindle (A Guide to Writing for the United Nations, pp. 10-12) and Joseph Williams (Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace) recommend the following rules:

Seven simple rules for clear writing
1. State a fact or an idea directly.
2. Use concrete rather than abstract words.
3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
4. Use the active voice rather than the passive voice. The active voice is action-oriented.
5. Avoid wordy sentences.
6. Use appropriate language.
7. Use verbs rather than nouns. Verbs are dynamic and action-oriented.

We will now look at each of these rules in turn. Keep in mind that these separate rules all ultimately lead to the same goal: clear, concise, accurate writing.


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  | I. Introduction | II. Reader and purpose | III. Pre-writing techniques | IV. Standard report formats | V. Sentence and paragraph development | VI. Clarity in writing | VII. Writing a summary | VIII. Writing conclusions and recommendations | IX. Some last tips |  

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