Principles in Practice
How to Make Your Writing Clear and Concrete
Stating your case so that others understand it and respond
By Tony Proscio
Effective writing, whatever your field, shares some basic characteristics. It is Clear and Concrete, Courteous and Collegial, Current and Consistent, and Concise. We call these the seven C’s of effective writing. See Communicating Effectively With Applicants and Grantees.
This article will address the first two C’s, Clear and Concrete, and share tips on how to state your case so others can understand it and respond.
Most of the time, your goal is to persuade someone to do something — for example, to decide wisely on whether to apply for a grant, to submit timely and complete reports, to communicate candidly on success and failure, or to think about new ways of approaching a foundation goal. Usually, the best way to get the result you want is to make the reader picture that result and grasp why it’s desirable.
The best way to do that is to write in short sentences, using active verbs with people and organizations, not abstract concepts, as the main subjects and objects of the sentence.
Active verbs are ones in which someone does something: He wrote a report. Our organization held a fundraiser. Passive verbs designate something being done, without specifying who does it: A report was written. A fundraiser was held. But even active sentences can become leaden and inert if the subjects and objects are abstractions rather than people, groups, and organizations. Consider the difference between these two sentences:
- Youth development organizations give children a safe place to play and learn social skills.
- Successful youth development involves opportunities for positive social interaction.
Technically, both those sentences have active verbs. But in the first sentence, we know who is doing what (organizations work with kids, and kids interact with one another). You can picture it actually happening. In the second sentence, no one really does anything. The whole thing feels static and dry because it’s just concepts interacting with other concepts. Your mind can’t form a picture of that. And if your readers can’t picture what you’re saying, asking for, or advising them to do, they probably won’t respond in quite the way you’d hope.
And here’s why short sentences are important: Most people approach tasks and challenges as a sequence of necessary actions: First, I’ll dig up the data on what we accomplished in Program X. Then I’ll ask Y to provide a short description of X. Then I’ll combine the data and the description into a proposal for another round of funding … and so on. Only afterward do our well-schooled brains translate those practical steps into strings of formal or technical buzz-words: performance metrics, logic model, third-year renewal request. For most of us, the intellectual curlicues come after we’ve already organized a set of practical tasks, activities, and objectives.
So one way to make your requests or instructions seem less formidable and more manageable is to express them in brief, simple, logical nuggets that mirror practical thinking. A long, convoluted, formal-sounding sentence will almost always seem harder to follow than a few short, pithy ones.
Most likely, if you’re used to legal or academic writing, your first draft will have lots of long sentences and probably too many passive verbs and abstract nouns. But that’s easy to fix. Here are four easy steps to make a second draft significantly clearer and more concrete than the first:
1. Find every long sentence — more than one and a half lines long — and look for conjunctions. You can often break the sentence into two parts just by putting a period before the conjunction and starting a new sentence after that. (Yes, it’s perfectly OK to start a sentence with a conjunction if you want to.) Example: Start with a run-on sentence like, “Applications should include a complete budget for the whole initiative, showing the amount of grant funds to be dedicated to each line item, and should describe how the grant funds would contribute to the expansion of each key activity being supported.” Just drop a period before “and” and start a new sentence with “The application should also describe …” then finish the sentence as before. The result is instantly less intimidating.
2. Find every passive verb — every single one — and then ask: “Who is supposedly doing this activity, and why can’t I name that person or organization?” For example, imagine the sentence, “Funds will be disbursed twice a year after the required semiannual report is submitted through the Foundation’s online reporting system.” Who’s disbursing the funds? Who’s submitting the report? It’s both clearer and more human to say, “The Foundation will disburse your grant funds twice a year. You will receive each disbursement after you have submitted the semiannual reports that are part of your grant agreement. Please submit the reports through the Foundation’s online reporting system.” Same information, but the sentences are now shorter and more vivid, and every action is performed by identifiable human beings. (Yes, OK, there are some cases where only a passive verb will do. It may be impossible or cumbersome to say who is performing a certain action. But that situation is much rarer than you think. And it’s very easy to use that premise as an excuse for passive, dreary writing.)
3. Look for abstract or impersonal nouns — the fancy, disembodied concepts and jargon phrases that are typical of most social-science writing — and change them to describe people and organizations doing tangible things. Take the sentence, “Reports should describe system change efforts in each of the six priority areas of the grant.” You can easily make this airy notion concrete by saying, “In the regular reports, we ask that grantees describe what steps they have taken to change policy or practice in the juvenile justice system, according to the six priority areas that they agreed to pursue under the grant.” Even though the original sentence wasn’t really hard to understand (assuming you know what “system change” means), using human nouns and practical verbs makes the text seem less cold and ponderous and more anchored in reality.
4. Finally, beware words that can easily mean 100 different things. When we write that a prospective grantee should “develop linkages with local government,” we are leaving all the practical thinking up to the readers. They have to imagine, on their own, what “linkages” might mean, which officials would constitute “local government,” and what it will take to “develop” the linkages. Your readers may have very different ideas about these things from what you had in mind, and if so, their reply won’t be anything close to what you were hoping for, despite the best intentions from both sides.
Worse, you can probably expect those same readers to reply to you in the same ambiguous terms you used: “We developed linkages.” “We interfaced with an array of stakeholders.” “We partnered with local agencies.” You will learn very little from this kind of vague talk. (What did they actually do, with whom, for what results?) But because you represent The Funder, readers are likely to mimic your language rather than use their own. They will write the way you write — even if they’re thinking very differently.
Imagine how much better the response might be if the original text said this: “We support projects in which grantees hold regular meetings with senior city or county officials in the X and Y Departments to improve the way services are funded and delivered. Please tell us how you plan to conduct these meetings” (or, “what meetings you held and what they accomplished”). The organization would then be much more likely to tell you who’s participating, what they talk about, and what gets done. And isn’t that what you really wanted to know?
To sum up, Clear and Concrete writing is easy to understand. Your ideas come across as practical and rooted in the real world, and the reader never struggles with how to satisfy a request or why the request is being made. The simplest way to be Clear and Concrete is to write in short sentences, use active verbs, and make people and organizations the main subjects and objects of your sentences, not abstract concepts.