Editing Tip: Guidelines on Improving Clarity in Drafted Lists

The quest to add clarity through the details in a text can often result in our writing a large number of lists that end up cluttering our drafts. Our immediate instinct is to directly equate a greater number of examples with greater clarity. This is not always the final result, however; and we should carefully limit our list usage to those items, which, by showing multiple examples, truly add to the reader's comprehension. The purpose of this particular blog entry is not to explore the factors that make the inclusion of a list more appropriate, but rather to explore one method of reducing a sense of over-listing. Most lists should be broken into pieces and formed into multiple sentences instead.

Let us consider an example in order to discuss some common guidelines.

Draft: “To correct any grammar errors, verify the clarity of our organization, confirm that we haven't left out any key details, ensure the clarity, readability, and power of anything we write, and reduce wordiness are all thing that we authors should spend sufficient time doing.”

That's quite a lot of detail, and the sentence containing it requires complex grammatical structures as a result. The first thing we will consider is that, generally, lists are stronger at the end of a sentence.

Edit #1: “As authors, we should spend sufficient time editing to correct any grammar errors, verify the clarity of our organization, confirm that we haven't left out any key details, ensure the clarity, readability, and power of anything we write, and reduce wordiness.”

The second thing we should notice is that there is a complex list structure that makes the grammar unclear to some readers unless they read it multiple times. The items we are ''ensuring'' present a list within our larger list of things done during editing. Given the previous guideline, we might expect that moving this subordinate list to the end of our larger list would be useful.

Edit #2: “As authors, we should spend sufficient time editing to correct any grammar errors, verify the clarity of our organization, confirm that we haven't left out any key details, reduce wordiness, and ensure the clarity, readability, and power of anything we write.”

Admittedly, this is less awkward than the first version. However, splitting the subordinate list into its own sentence would be an even better option.

Edit #3: “As authors, we should spend sufficient time editing to correct any grammar errors, verify the clarity of our organization, confirm that we haven't left out any key details, and reduce wordiness. Fully engaging in these steps will ensure the clarity, readability, and power of anything we write.”

At this stage, examining the first sentence might show us that the list combines different steps of a document review. Whether you consider editing as a single step that moves from broad concerns like organization toward finer concerns like checking your citation accuracy or, alternatively, see these as separate steps, the items should be organized in time order to ensure better readability. Thus, correcting grammar errors should come after revision tasks like organization and completeness of the contained ideas.

Edit #4: “As authors, we should spend sufficient time editing to verify the clarity of our organization, confirm that we haven't left out any key details, correct any grammar errors, and reduce wordiness. Fully engaging in these steps will ensure the clarity, readability, and power of anything we write.”

If the length of the paper and the level of detail are appropriate, I would also recommend splitting the items that group together more closely into their own sentences or clauses as well.

Edit #5: “As authors, we should spend sufficient time transforming our drafts into publishable text. We should revise to verify the clarity of our organization and confirm that we haven't left out any key details. We should edit to reduce wordiness, and we should proofread to correct any grammar errors. Fully engaging in these steps will ensure the clarity, readability, and power of anything we write.”

This fifth edit is 43% (19 words) longer than the draft. The clarity and readability, however, are immeasurably improved.

Writing Center Staff