Writing Clearly

By Brock Mason

Ever start to read something and after eventually droning off, you look back and realize you have no idea what you just read?

The writing might sound smart: lots of big words like “amorphous” and “erudite” scattered everywhere, really complicated sentences with long introductions and tons of commas, and a lot of quotations from important thinkers sprinkled every few lines or so. It might look something like this:

But the current concepts of erudition and the role of justification, while perhaps surpassing the modern understanding of “absolutization” within the context of scientific “objectivity,” never succeed in exteriorizing the post-essential manifestations of themselves, always caught up within the temporality of spoken utterances yet ignoring the Platonic . . .

Unfortunately, sentences like this one are obnoxiously common in the academic world. While they are certainly guilty of being long, it’s not so much the grammar or the mechanics of this sentence that makes it so incomprehensible and useless. Instead, the problem is with clarity—the author seems to have no care for it whatsoever. While not all writing is as bad as our example, one of the most common problems in writing is clarity. If your point is to get some type of message across, then unless that message is clear, you have probably failed as a writer. Sure, sometimes we deliberately write in vague ways, and that serves an important point; still, it’s better to know how to write clearly before ever deliberately writing unclearly.

With that in mind, here are three basic tips to make your writing clearer, both at the sentence and paragraph level:

First: as much as possible, make the subjects of your sentences short and concrete. Let’s take our example above to illustrate. What’s the subject?—“the current concepts of erudition and the role of justification.” First off, what are the current concepts of erudition? What is the role of justification that we are referring to? And even if we listed them all, wouldn’t that be a really long list? What we want is a short phrase that captures all of this, something easier for our minds to comprehend and something short so our sentence doesn’t look so daunting.

We could write something like this: “Our current understanding of knowledge.” That’s shorter, easier to understand, and doesn’t use “big” words to try to sound smart.

Second: make the main point of your writing explicit right at the beginning of your paper and the beginning of your paragraphs. Your words don’t interpret themselves; don’t assume that your reader will understand what you’re trying to prove simply because you do. Say it somewhere. In many disciplines (though not all), this type of language is not only approved but encouraged—“In this paper, I will show that . . .”; “I will prove this by doing X, Y, and Z”; or “this shows that X is true for this reason.”

With our example sentence, we could adjust it as follows:

Our current concepts of knowledge are inadequate because while perhaps they surpass the modern understanding of “absolutization” within the context of scientific “objectivity,” they never succeed in exteriorizing the post-essential manifestations of themselves, always caught up within the temporality of spoken utterances yet ignoring the Platonic . . .

Here, we didn’t have to include any first person language, but we made the point of the entire sentence clear right from the very beginning: our current conceptions of knowledge are inadequate, and the rest of the sentence is going to show why.

Third: have others review your paper, and if they find something unclear, believe them. As far as clarity goes, there is nothing like having a trusted reviewer look over your writing. A reviewer comes with a fresh set of eyes and doesn’t have the same assumptions as you. But here’s the catch: if your reviewers tell you that something is unclear, trust that they see something you don’t. In most cases, our first response to a comment like “this is not clear” is to explain it in our words, then move on; the reviewer should’ve understood it the first time. But that’s not how this works—your writing needs to be clear to other people, not just to you. If a reviewer says your thoughts are unclear, make them clearer. Period.

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