How to Eschew Obfuscation & Write Clearly

How to what the what? Exactly.

Write Clear
Photo credit: Declan Jewell (Creative Commons)

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:

Remove cliches

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.

Eradicate redundancies

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.

Practice brevity

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)

49 thoughts on “How to Eschew Obfuscation & Write Clearly

  1. Wonderful post!! I an always writing very long posts and so frustrated because I don’t know how to cull it down. This is a great example of how to do it! Will DEFINITELY have to do this!!!
    Thanks again for an informative article Jeff!

  2. You got my attention with that headline 🙂

    My struggle is I try to edit and say less on my first draft. I’m a perfectionist and it’s hard to just vomit my thoughts on a page. I recently wrote an article for a magazine and the editor asked me to make it longer! Didn’t see that coming. So I’m learning to write longer first drafts and edit like crazy second time around.

  3. Heh.  When I saw the title of this post, I thought “Why not just say ‘How to Write Clearly’?  It’s clearer!”  Good work.

    Brevity is tough for me.  And with that, I shall conclude my comment.

  4. One of my English professors in college really helped me with my writing (and I think I need to go back and brush up on some of those lessons). I have a knack for writing paragaph-long sentences that aren’t run-ons. Impressive, I know! lol

    He sat down with me one semester and forced me to cut a 5 page paper to a 3 page without taking out any necessary content. We reworked sentences, found ways to be more concise while saying the exact same thing. Now whenever I write, I try to ask myself if I’m being flowery in my choice of words, or if there is a more concise way to say what I’m trying to communicate.

    Great post Jeff!

      1. I didn’t love it at the time. I think I told him at one point to leave my paper alone. But now, I’m glad he pushed me to be a better writer.

  5. You advise us not to use “at the end of the day…” and then gave an example of how you wanted to use it with “At the end of the day, cliches are unneccessary,” thus using the cliche in the exact way you wanted to in the first place, but not breaking any rules…nice!

    At the end of the day though, it’s all the same.  🙂

    Your points were well taken!

  6. Hi Jeff,

    This rings true for me, as well, especially since I have recently been reviewing Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” again.

    However, just thought I would mention:

    “If you can say it in less words, do it.”

    I dig, but what you want there is “fewer words”. Hoowa! Couldn’t resist. I hope you’ll find it in your heart to forgive my tendency to get sucked back into my Grammar Police days. :O



  7. As a feature writer, I have to do this with every story I write.  I love “On Writing Well” by Zinsser.  Learned a lot from that book as a novice and just re-read it this summer.

  8. Geez. Now I’m all self-conscious about whether or not my writing is obfuscated. Better to be aware than ignorant, though. Right?

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Jeff. I hope I can learn from it!

  9. Such a great list of tips. My own writing has improved as I’ve started to work on simplicity and brevity.

    The headline and opener were brilliant. 🙂

    1. Thanks, man. Glad you’re paying attention to this stuff. It’s so foundational. Many writers overlook it and suffer the consequences later on in their careers.

  10. At one of my previous jobs, I actually had a co-worker who LOVED the phrase “eschew obfuscation”. When we each had to pick out a quote or saying to go with our pictures on the company wall, that was hers. 😉

    I love the irony of the phrase, but it’s also great advice. It’s awfully darn tempting to throw in big words to show off you’re intelligence. I think we all want to use descriptive words. But there’s a fine line between eloquence and laying it on too thick.

    As for me, I really need to work on those darn cliches! I swear, I think I use “at the end of the day” in every other post. Ouch! Thanks for challenging us to avoid lazy writing like that. 

    If I were to add one, it would be to eliminate jargon (i.e. corporate speak like “synergy”) and acronyms. Spell things out on the first reference so people know what you’re talking about.

    Great advice. 🙂

  11. So what if you want to put a lot of emphasis on an important concept? Wouldn’t you want to say it more than once, blatantly repeating it (even perhaps in the same words each time) ?

    I believe in that case that your message gains in effect instead of losing.

    What do you think?

  12. For me brevity is very important. I cannot tell you how often I go back and cut words out; even if just 2 or 3

      1. It may become even more brief. In the process of preparing for a fresh start and something in a little different direction.

  13. Amen.

    I am a medical transcriptionist and transcribed many reports from a physician assistant who has word-heavy habits, e.g., the use of emphatic mood (she does have, we did perform, he did report) and the use of “as well as” – even in series such as “aspirin as well as Plavix as well as metoprolol as well as digoxin.”

    I faithfully transcribed these long, wordy reports until the time I got a dictation from a surgeon on consult who was relying on this physician assistant’s report to supply background for his consult report. 

    Not far into that dictation the surgeon began saying “hold on, please hold on, sorry.”  Eventually the surgeon said aside to the transcriptionist “I HATE reading these [name] reports.”

    That changed my transcription of this physician assistant’s reports – and others’, too. 
    I must never alter any medical terms; but now in the non-medical language I replace the phrase “as well as” with the word “and” or commas where appropriate.  I eliminate that emphatic – “she does have” becomes “she has,” etc.
    I now regard this as a matter of patient wellbeing and patient safety. I believe readability matters so much. 

    Cumbersome language obscures and impedes transmission of critical information.

  14. Man! I LOVED that last sentence. It’s so true, when you write less, you can actually write more, because you’re actually just saying what you got to say, and then it becomes fun and not like a chore.

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