Clear Writing

Factsheet - ISSN 1198-712X   -   Copyright Queen's Printer for Ontario
Agdex#: 057
Publication Date: 8 January 2009
Order#: 07-049
Last Reviewed: October 2007
History: Replaces OMAFRA Factsheet, Clear Writing, Order No. 93-021
Written by: Reviewed by Denise Edwards, Agriculture Organization Specialist/OMAFRA

Table of Contents

  1. What is Clear Writing?
  2. Why Bother with Clear Writing?
  3. Why are Some People Reluctant to use Clear Writing
  4. How do you Write Clearly
  5. How do you Present Material so People Want to Read it?

What is Clear Writing?

"Clear Writing" is a way of presenting information so that it is easy for everyone to read and understand. Clear Writing considers how the material looks, as well as what it says. Clear Writing prevents misunderstanding between you and your reader by avoiding jargon and technical terms.

Why Bother with Clear Writing?

Millions of people do not read well. The International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey surveyed the literacy skills of adult Canadians in 2003. The survey results show that material that is clear and easy to read can be used by a wider audience. Changing the way we write can make it easier for many more people to get information.

Clear Writing makes material easier to understand for:

  • people who do not read well
  • people whose first language is not English
  • people who do not see well
  • people who are too busy to read a large amount of text to gain a small amount of information

Clear Writing saves time because it avoids misunderstanding and errors. It gets the job done the first time.

Why are Some People Reluctant to use Clear Writing?

Here are some commonly given reasons:

Literacy is not a problem for our audience.

Any material that is written for the general public should be clear and easy to read, since as many as 41% of Canadian adults have difficulty reading print materials. See sidebar on Canadian literacy levels.

It will insult people who read well.

People who read well can find information more quickly from materials that are clear, focused on the main ideas and well designed.

What we have to say cannot be written simply. We have to use technical language.

When material is written for the general public, the writer must explain technical terms so that more people can understand.

If I write simply, people will not respect my expertise.

Many people believe that difficult language gives the writing more importance or makes it better. Unfortunately, it only makes it harder to read.

Literacy Levels for Canadians

  • 4 in 10 adult Canadians do not have the literacy skills they need to meet the ever-increasing demands of modern life.
  • 14.6% of adult Canadians (3 million) do not have the skills to deal with the majority of writing materials that they are faced with in everyday life.
  • 27% of adult Canadians (5.8 million) have the skills to carry out reading tasks when the reading materials are simple and clearly laid out, but not the skills to cope with unfamiliar or complex reading material.

Source: International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS, 2003)

How Do You Write Clearly?

Ask yourself these questions before you begin to write:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What are the needs and abilities of my audience?
  • What do I want to tell my reader?

Use the following guidelines on language and organization to help you write clearly.


Write directly to your reader

Incorrect: All staff employees are asked to submit their reports by the end of the year.

Correct: Have your work reports in by December 31.

Don't change verbs into nouns

Incorrect: Immunizing will be done twice a year.

Correct: We will immunize children each January and June.

Use the active voice - the subject does this action

Incorrect: The coffee pot must be washed.

Correct: You must wash the coffee pot.

Use a positive tone

Incorrect: Anyone not wearing a bathing cap will not be allowed in the pool.

Correct: You must wear a bathing cap while in the pool.

Avoid using jargon or acronyms

Incorrect: The new OMAFRA office has a boardroom that rural stakeholders can use.

Correct: The new office of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA)

Explain difficult words in their context

Incorrect: Every season, your sprayer should be calibrated.

Correct: Every season, calibrate your sprayer by measuring the output of each nozzle to make sure that each one is putting out the same amount of spray.


Use headings that summarize the text

Incorrect: Attention!

Correct: Information on New Government Grants

List instructions in order - first step first, second step second, etc.
  • Write complete sentences only when it makes sense to do so.
  • List critical points apart from the text.

The Annual Fall Clean-Up Day will be held on Saturday October the 20th from 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Anyplace Township Dump.

Garbage must be brought in pick-up trucks or cars. No hazardous materials will be accepted at this time. All garbage must be unloaded by hand.

Organize your garbage with wood on top, then metal objects, then tires on the bottom. This dump is open to Anyplace Township Residents only.

Dumping charges will be $10 per vehicle.


Annual Fall Clean up Day

Anyplace Township Residents Only

Date: Saturday, October 20, 20XX

Time: 9:00 A.M. to 3:30 P.M.

Place: Anyplace Township Dump

Cost: $10 per vehicle

Load your vehicle in the following order from bottom to top:

  1. Tires
  2. Metal Objects
  3. Wood

* No hazardous materials will be accepted!

Avoid long, complicated sentences

Incorrect: A viable agricultural base strengthens the rural community and likewise, agriculture benefits from close ties to community, business, education, social and recreation facilities.

Correct: A viable agricultural base strengthens the rural community. Agriculture benefits from close ties to community, business, education, social and recreation facilities.

Use parallel construction in lists - phrase each item using the same grammatical form


The volunteer survey had the following suggestions: planning meetings should be held in the spring. Do all recruiting through the newspaper. We should conduct two fundraisers every year.


The volunteer survey had the following suggestions:

  • Hold planning meetings in the spring.
  • Recruit through the newspaper.
  • Hold fundraising events twice a year.

How Do You Present Material so People Want to Read it?

"Clear Writing" refers to more than just the way you write. The next step is to design the material so that your message stands out. You don't have to be a professional graphic designer. Many of these techniques can be done using a basic word processor and a little common sense.

Type Size and Style

Use serif type for text

Serif type has "feet" on the ends of the letters that move the reader's eye along the line, making it the best choice for paragraphs of text. Garamond is an example of a serif font.

Use sans-serif type for short headings.

Sans-serif type is suitable for headings and signs. Franklin Gothic is an example of a sans-serif typeface.

Illustration of a lower case letter n that indicates the serif type font.Illustration of a lower case letter n that indicates the sans serif type font.

Do not use all capital letters in body text.

Using all capital letters makes text look too dense. People identify words and letters by shape.

Illustration of the word "TYPE" in uppercase bold format. Illustration of the word "Type" in title case bold font.

Use bold type for emphasis.

Italics are difficult to read.

Use a legible size of type for body text

Some fonts are hard to read at small sizes than others. Choose a combination of point size and font that makes your body text easy for everyone to read.

Illustration indicating the 11 point garamond font

Illustration indicating the 11 point franklin gothic font

Illustration indicating 8-point garamond

Illustration indicating 8-point franklin gothic font.

Use graphics that enhance text

Graphics should help to break up the text, however, do not over-use graphics and clutter up your page.

Use a simple design

Do not try to add too many different fonts and styles over-design your material. Simple is best! It is easier to read and more effective.

Text Justification

Left-justified text (with uneven right margins) gives the reader's eye a rest at the end of each line and a point of reference to begin reading the next line.

Justified text (text with even left and right margins) can save room on the page and looks neater, but appears dense and is difficult to read.

Bullets and Boxes

Graphic elements such as bullets (•) and boxes can be used to organize text and draw attention to certain areas. Be careful to be consistent in how you use these or else they can be more confusing than helpful to your reader.

White Space

Too much text gives a dense appearance and sends two messages to the reader: "This is going to be hard to understand. This is going to be boring." Columns and wide page margins make your text easier to read.

For more information:
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