Nonfiction. It's so important, yet so many people are terrified of it. Considering the way much of it is written, I can't blame them. I mean, look at this excerpt from the required textbook for my college course on the Crusades (we can discuss my nerdiness later). This passage describes some of the difficulties between the Europeans and the Byzantine emperor during the Second Crusade:
The amount of effective assistance Manuel could provide, especially on and beyond the frontier regions of western Asia Minor, would always fall short of the westerners' expectations raised by Manuel's own promises, the awesome scale of his capital, the expensive dress of imperial servants and the deliberately intimidating but gorgeous court ritual and entertainment.
Wow. (And no Oxford comma? The horror!) If you understood that on your first read, major props to you. But if you're like me, you probably had to read that two or three times before you figured out what on Earth the author was talking about. Now imagine having to read ten to fifty pages of that kind of prose each week for an entire semester, and you'll understand why I was regularly tempted to throw that textbook across the room.
Let's be honest: do even experts enjoy reading whole articles or books that dense and dry? I suspect not. There's got to be a better way to convey factual information, right?
There is! Try these four quick tips to make your prose easier to read, especially for a nonexpert audience:
Keep your subjects short--no more than four words if possible.
Don't have long modifiers at the beginning of a sentence.
Don't put modifiers between the subject and the verb.
Where possible, make the actors in the sentence flesh-and-blood characters rather than inanimate objects or ideas.
Let's see how our sample passage compares to these tips:
(Subject is four words max) "The amount of effective assistance Manuel could provide" = eight words. Fail, though it could be okay, depending on how the rest of the sentence stacks up.
(No long modifiers at the beginning) This sentence starts with the subject ("The amount . . . could provide"), so good job, author. Pass.
(No modifiers between subject and verb) Immediately after the subject, we have this doozy of a modifier: "especially on and beyond the frontier regions of western Asia Minor." So when we put the subject and the modifier together, we have to read a total of nineteen words before we get to the verb that actually goes with the subject ("could provide"). Major fail.
(Prefer flesh-and-blood actors over inanimate actors) The two actors in this sentence are, in fact, ideas rather than people: "The amount . . . could provide" (which "always fell short") and "the westerners' expectations" (which "[were] raised by Manuel's own promises . . . ritual"). Major fail.
I'm guessing that you and I both would want to do better than that. So if we were to create a revised edition of this textbook, how could we rewrite this passage to spare those poor college students? Here's a possibility:
The westerners expected effective assistance from Byzantium because of Manuel's own promises, the awesome scale of his capital, the expensive dress of imperial servants, and the deliberately intimidating but gorgeous court ritual and entertainment. But Manuel could never meet those expectations, especially on and beyond the frontier regions of western Asia Minor.
Though we now have two sentences instead of one--and have rescued the poor left-out Oxford comma--both sentences follow all four tips:
Four-word-or-fewer subjects ("The westerners" and "Manuel")
No long modifiers at the beginnings of the sentences
No modifiers between the subjects ("The westerners" and "Manuel") and the verbs that go with them ("expected" and "could never meet")
Flesh-and-blood actors rather than inanimate actors ("The westerners" and "Manuel").
I don't know about you, but I find the second version way easier to understand than the first one. And I only had to read it once! Way better than having to struggle through it multiple times and end up exhausted, right?
You can do this, too. Follow these four tips and watch your writing become clearer and more interesting. Here's to nimble prose!