Clearly, clarity is paramount in writing effectiveness. But even if we understand that and commit to it, we’re bound to send fuzzy messages from time to time.

The antidote? Allocating ample time to organizing the message is crucial, but it also helps to set mental alarms on words, phrases, and subjects that are vulnerable to misunderstanding.

Read my mind

See if you can guess what I believe is imprecise in each of the following sentences. To do this, imagine each sentence as part of an email exchange and assume that any ambiguity is not cleared up in an adjacent sentence.

Word search

1. You ought to hire Beth before you choose your paint colors because she is awesome.

2. After the speaker got a nice laugh on her opening story, it was downhill from there.

3. We had incredible weather almost every day of our trip.

4. Please give me a quick summary of Barney’s employment record ASAP.

5. I perused your proposal and have a few questions.

6. In 1965 the starting teacher salary here was $5,600.

Six alarms

1. You might object to awesome because of its overuse – or love it for its energy – but I have a different perspective. If Beth is awesome, is she artistic, deeply experienced, personable, highly responsible, extremely affordable? What? Sometimes “awesome” leaves the reader wondering why we’re so enthusiastic.

2. Ordinarily, the use of downhill is clear because of context, but watch out. In the example above we might mean the rest of the presentation went “down the tubes” or for the rest of the way the speaker was coasting. She had the audience in her hands.

3. Incredible weather? How so? Glorious? Gloomy? Unseasonably warm? Tell us.

4. Hmm. ASAP. Get it to you by the end of the day? Drop everything and do it immediately? (The other issue with “ASAP,” of course – having nothing to do with clarity – is that it can sound demanding. And tone is right up there with clarity in importance.)

5. Peruse is commonly used to mean “scan,” but the dictionary tells us the preferred meaning is the opposite: to read carefully or examine. So unless we know our reader uses “peruse” the way we do, we should choose a different word.

6. Income ambiguity, like a $5,600 salary without any context, occurs in news stories with surprising regularity. How does it help me to know what a starting teacher made 50 years ago if that isn’t translated into 2015 dollars? Similarly, we often read that a certain kind of worker in another country makes just $x a day. So we get the writer’s point – that the country is poor – but knowing the cost of a pair of shoes or loaf of bread there would enhance our grasp of conditions.

As maintained in other posts, editing our writing is essential, and it really helps to do so as if we were the reader. That role-playing serves us well in catching lack of clarity.

In addition to presenting workshops on writing in the workplace, Norm Friedman is a writer, editor, and writing coach. His 100+ Instant Writing Tips is a brief “non-textbook” to help individuals overcome common writing errors and write with more finesse and impact. Learn more at

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