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Textbook development tip: Aim for good expository writing

The best way to ensure clarity is to write well. When editors mark passages “Not Clear,” they are not being stupid but are basing their judgments both on the perceived needs of your target audience and on standards of good expository writing. All good writing for any audience at any educational level has the same basic qualities, including clarity, concision, unity, coherence, and emphasis. Wordiness is perhaps the greatest enemy of good writing.


Wordiness is the habitual practice of using more words than are necessary to convey information, an idea, or a feeling. Passive constructions and optional adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases cause the greatest offense. In addition, wordiness comes from uncertainty and self-regard. That is, authors tend to use more words when they are unsure of the information they are attempting to convey, the points they are trying to make, or their efficacy in communicating on the page. Self-regarding authors, who like to hear themselves talk and extemporize on the page, also use more words. Whatever the reason, wordiness is to be scrupulously avoided. However careful or fascinating you believe you are in your writing, in reality, wordiness bores readers and interferes with their learning.

Consider the following unedited passage for a college textbook on criminal justice.

Example: Rehabilitation and restorative justice are more contemporary philosophies defining the purpose of criminal sanctions. Rehabilitation and restorative justice philosophies argue that criminal sanctions should provide for a “cure” of the criminality of the offender. The rehabilitation model is often referred to as the medical model in that it views criminality as a “disease” to be “cured”. Rehabilitation of the offender is considered to be impossible by some. For those who believe that is is possible to rehabilitate the offender through rehabilitation and restorative justice models the most common approaches involve psychology, the biological/medical approach, self-esteem treatment, and programs aimed at developing ethical values and work skills.

Here is the same passage with thirty-six fewer words. Note that in tightening the paragraphs, the development editor preserved, even improved, the author’s intention and meaning.

Improved Version: Rehabilitation and restoration are contemporary philosophies for obtaining justice through criminal sanctions. Rehabilitation calls for sanctions that “cure” the offender of criminality. Because it sees criminality as a disease to be cured, this philosophy is described as a medical model. Some doubt that offenders can be rehabilitated. Others, however, believe that effective rehabilitation is possible through psychological approaches, medical treatment, self-esteem counseling, and programs promoting ethical values and work skills.

Eliminating unnecessary words and phrases helps control manuscript length as well as improve clarity in exposition.

Unity, Coherence, and Emphasis

In addition to clarity and concision, all good expository writing exhibits unity, coherence, and emphasis. Unity is the quality of centrality and relevance, or belongingness. That is, all the paragraphs of a section relate to the purpose of that section, and all the sentences in a paragraph relate to the point set out in the paragraph’s topic sentence or thesis statement. In prose, irrelevancies, tangential remarks, digressions, sudden insights, flashbacks, cosmic syntheses, and brainstorming on the page can all compromise unity.

Coherence is the quality of sequentiality and integrity, or togetherness. Sentences and paragraphs progress in a logical or natural order, flowing smoothly from one to the next while sticking together in meaning. The writing and the meanings it coveys have direction and thrust. Coherence is compromised most by lack of transitions, derailment of logic, stagnation of thought, and–statements that do not follow from what has just been said.

Emphasis in writing is the quality of focus, interest and control. Words, ideas, and images are subtly weighted or ranked such that the most important word, idea, or image in each sentence, paragraph, section, and chapter stands out. Emphasis guides the reader in constructing meaning from text by distinguishing what is to be regarded as important. Emphasis is compromised when words, ideas, and images are all given equal importance or when the reader’s attention is focused inappropriately.

The above section of text, “Unity, Coherence, and Emphasis,” exhibits the qualities described in it. The three paragraphs all address the same implied purpose to define and illustrate these qualities. This is unity. The progression of thought within and between paragraphs facilitates sense-making–through the repetition of a pattern of exposition. This is coherence. And the section ends with the application in this paragraph, which reinforces the emphasis introduced in the first sentence of the section. Good writers and editors evaluate writing in terms of these qualities of unity, coherence, and emphasis.

Writing and Developing Your College TextbookThis is an excerpt from Mary Ellen Lepionka’s new book, Writing and Developing Your College Textbook: A Comprehensive Guide, which includes a sample wordiness elimination guide on how to reduce wordiness. Subscribe to our email list and we’ll send you a 17-page sample of the book.

Register for the March 22 TAA webinar, “Author Q&A: Writing and Developing Your College Textbook,” where Mary Ellen and her coauthors Sean Wakely and Stephen Gillen will answer questions about the higher education textbook publishing industry, contracts, and textbook development. Open to members and non-members.

Mary Ellen Lepionka of Gloucester, MA is a retired publisher, author, editor, textbook developer, and college instructor with a Master’s in anthropology from Boston University and Ph.D. work at the University of British Columbia. In 1990 she worked in higher Mary Ellen Lepionkaeducation publishing as a developmental editor of college textbooks, principally for Houghton Mifflin and Pearson Education. Between 2002 and 2011 she established Atlantic Path Publishing as a retirement business and published two editions of Writing and Developing Your College Textbook and related titles. She presently is an independent scholar writing a history of Native Americans on Cape Ann.