How to Eschew Obfuscation & Write Clearly
How to what the what? Exactly.
Eschew means to avoid. Obfuscation is a funny-looking word that means confusion. The phrase “eschew obfuscation” is an ironic expression that writers and grammar geeks use to explain the need for clear writing.
And it’s something some of us don’t do very well.
Time to get simple
Often, we writers complicate things. We learn a new word and try to work it into our writing and everyday conversation. Most of the time, we do this just to look smart. It usually comes off looking contrived (because it is).
But really what we need to do is follow the wise example of Dr. Seuss’s character Horton (from Horton Hears a Who):
“I meant what I said and I said what I meant!”
In other words, let’s stop trying to impress and start writing more clearly. Here are ways you can make your writing more understandable and less obfuscated:
This is a challenge for me.
Cliches are overused expressions that are more intuitive for some than others. Most of the time, they’re unnecessary and only take up space. They’re fluff. If you can remove the cliches in your piece and still make your point, you should.
One that always gets me is “at the end of the day…” Even in this section, I wanted to use it: “At the end of the day, cliches are unnecessary.” But then I realized that the sentence made just as much sense without it.
Here are some other commonly-used cliches:
- “as easy as pie”
- “no place like home”
- “quick as a lick”
- “fly in the face of”
(For fun, play with this random cliche generator to see what else you find.) Remove as many of these as possible. They’re not as clear as you assume. Moreover, they’re not fun to read.
This is something I am also guilty of. I like being emphatic. Typically, I’lll write a 900-word blog post, realize that I said the same thing more than once, and cut it down to fewer than 700. I’m doing that with this post right now.
A redundancy is an unnecessary repetition. It’s saying the same thing more than once. Saying the same thing more than once is redundant. It’s redundant.
See what I did there? 😉
Only repeat yourself when you really need to make a point. Otherwise, your message loses its effect.
Write to your audience
When you willingly use a word that doesn’t fit your audience (because you like or for whatever reason), you’re failing as a communicator.
The point of cool words like “eschew” is to use them when no other is appropriate. Don’t use your vocabulary to impress or intimidate; use it only to communicate.
In order to do that, you need to understand your audience. You need to know how they talk, what they like to read, and what words they’re used to. And you need to serve them.
Don’t write over their heads; that’s pointless.
Pull a Hemingway and embrace the value of terseness. If you can say it in fewer words, do it.
For some communicators (like me), this is a discipline. In many ways, it’s what you’re going for with all of the aforementioned. As a final editing checkpoint, make sure you reread your work, editing out stuff that just doesn’t need to be there.
More often than not, you can say more with less. Try it.
Further reading: How to Write Clear Sentences
What tips for writing more clearly do you have?
*Photo credit: Declan Jewell (Creative Commons)