Directness in Speech and Writing

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Pointing finger
(Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images)

In speech and writing, directness is the quality of being straightforward and concise: stating a main point early and clearly without embellishments or digressions. Directness contrasts with circumlocution, verbosity, and indirectness.

There are different degrees of directness, which are determined in part by social and cultural conventions. In order to communicate effectively with a particular audience, a speaker or writer needs to maintain a balance between directness and politeness

Examples and Observations

  • "The whole world will tell you, if you care to ask, that your words should be simple & direct. Everybody likes the other fellow's prose plain. It has even been said that we should write as we speak. That is absurd. ... Most speaking is not plain or direct, but vague, clumsy, confused, and wordy. ... What is meant by the advice to write as we speak is to write as we might speak if we spoke extremely well. This means that good writing should not sound stuffy, pompous, highfalutin, totally unlike ourselves, but rather, well—'simple & direct.'
    "Now, the simple words in the language tend to be the short ones that we assume all speakers know; and if familiar, they are likely to be direct. I say 'tend to be' and 'likely' because there are exceptions. ...
    "Prefer the short word to the long; the concrete to the abstract; and the familiar to the unfamiliar. But:
    "Modify these guidelines in the light of the occasion, the full situation, which includes the likely audience for your words."
    (Jacques Barzun, Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, 4th ed. Harper Perennial, 2001)
  • Revising for Directness
    "Academic audiences value directness and intensity. They do not want to struggle through overly wordy phrases and jumbled sentences. ... Examine your draft. Focus specifically on the following issues:
    1. Delete the obvious: Consider statements or passages that argue for or detail what you and your peers already assume. ...
    2. Intensify the least obvious: Think about your essay as a declaration of new ideas. What is the most uncommon or fresh idea? Even if it's a description of the problem or a slightly different take on solving it, develop it further. Draw more attention to it." (John Mauk and John Metz, The Composition of Everyday Life: A Guide to Writing, 5th ed. Cengage, 2015)
  • Degrees of Directness
    "Statements may be strong and direct or they may be softer and less direct. For example, consider the range of sentences that might be used to direct a person to take out the garbage:
    Take out the garbage!
    Can you take out the garbage?
    Would you mind taking out the garbage?
    Let's take out the garbage.
    The garbage sure is piling up.
    Garbage day is tomorrow.
    "Each of these sentences may be used to accomplish the goal of getting the person to take out the garbage. However, the sentences show varying degrees of directness, ranging from the direct command at the top of the list to the indirect statement regarding the reason the activity needs to be undertaken at the bottom of the list. The sentences also differ in terms of relative politeness and situational appropriateness. ...
    "In matters of directness vs. indirectness, gender differences may play a more important role than factors such as ethnicity, social class, or region, although all these factors tend to intersect, often in quite complex ways, in the determination of the 'appropriate' degree of directness or indirectness for any given speech act."
    (Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes, American English: Dialects and Variation. Wiley-Blackwell, 2006)
  • Directness and Gender
    "While some of us will think that without the skills of 'good' writing a student cannot truly be empowered, we must be equally aware that the qualities of 'good' writing as they are advocated in textbooks and rhetoric books — directness, assertiveness and persuasiveness, precision and vigor—collide with what social conventions dictate proper femininity to be. Even should a woman succeed at being a 'good' writer she will have to contend with either being considered too masculine because she does not speak 'like a Lady,' or, paradoxically, too feminine and hysterical because she is, after all, a woman. The belief that the qualities that make good writing are somehow 'neutral' conceals the fact their meaning and evaluation changes depending on whether the writer is a man or woman."
    (Elisabeth Daumer and Sandra Runzo, "Transforming the Composition Classroom." Teaching Writing: Pedagogy, Gender, and Equity, ed. by Cynthia L. Caywood and Gillian R. Overing. State University of New York Press, 1987)
  • Directness and Cultural Differences
    "The U.S. style of directness and forcefulness would be perceived as rude or unfair in, say, Japan, China, Malaysia, or Korea. A hard-sell letter to an Asian reader would be a sign of arrogance, and arrogance suggests inequality for the reader."
    (Philip C. Kolin, Successful Writing at Work. Cengage, 2009)

Pronunciation: de-REK-ness

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Directness in Speech and Writing." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Directness in Speech and Writing. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Directness in Speech and Writing." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).