Five Tips for Improving Clarity
A few years ago, a cellular phone company aired a series of memorable television commercials. They all involved people in ridiculous situations caused by bad phone connections. In one, a wife asks her husband to buy some shampoo, and he comes home with Shamu, the killer whale. In another, the woman asks for a movie—something old—and he brings home a monkey with a cold. The phone company was suggesting that the clarity of their service would have prevented such miscommunication.
Writers also need to be concerned with the clarity of their communication. The most basic purpose of writing is to transmit information; so getting your message through is the most important part of the task.
There is no secret to writing with clarity. Employing the writing process is helpful, because it gives opportunity to revise and reorder and hopefully clear up what is fuzzy. A solid grasp of the basics of grammar and usage is important. Clear thinking and a sense of organization helps. But the number of potential pitfalls is enormous. There are many ways to muddy up writing and force your reader to wring the meaning out of your words.
A waitress asks a customer if he’d like a drink refill. He replies, “Give me a second,” and is surprised when the waitress returns with a new glass. He only wanted some time to make up his mind, but his choice of words left open two possibilities. That’s a communication problem.
Church bulletins are famous for confusing (and entertaining) readers:
- The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of every kind. They may be seen in the basement on Friday afternoon.
- For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.
- Don’t let worry kill you. Let the church help.
- The Reverend Merriweather spoke briefly, much to the delight of the audience.
Just leave out a punctuation mark or two and you can really mess things up:
- King Charles walked and talked half an hour after his head was chopped off. (huh?)
- King Charles walked and talked. Half an hour after, his head was chopped off. (oh!)
Put a space where it doesn’t belong and you can dramatically alter the meaning of your sentence:
- Look what’s in the road ahead!
- Look what’s in the road—a head!
As you mature as a writer, you will learn to identify the particular kinds of clarity problems you struggle with. For now, here’s some advice: Before you’re done, read your work as though you were someone else.
One of the reasons students lack clarity in writing is their inability to read from another’s perspective. Don’t assume that just because your message is clear to you, it will be clear to the reader. Step out of yourself and read as if you were seeing the words for the first time. Ask yourself if all information has been included that an ordinary reader would require. Ask yourself if the words and phrases you’ve selected communicate exactly what you had hoped. Revise any places that could cause confusion.
Good writing is clear from the first reading. It shouldn’t be necessary to go back and reread any portion of our work in order to make sense of it. Readers might have to work to understand our ideas, but they shouldn’t have to work to understand our language.
Here are a just a few ways to help keep your writing clear:
1. Include all necessary information. Don’t assume your reader knows what you know. Don’t be patronizing, but make sure everything that needs to be said is said.
2. Be grammatically correct. Bad usage and mechanics can throw readers into confusion. Punctuate well. Place modifiers carefully. Make sure your pronouns have clear antecedents, etc.
3. Eliminate wordiness. Say things concisely. Vary the lengths of your sentences, but generally resist getting too complex. Short, simple words are usually better than long, impressive ones. (Why use a big word when a diminutive one will do?)
4. Use transitions wisely. Learn strategies for moving from one idea to the next. Show how one thought is related to the next.
5. Avoid careless errors. It’s easy to leave out important words, or repeat yourself unintentionally. Another common careless error is thinking of one word, but writing another.
These are just a handful of things to think about. As you mature as a writer, you will learn more and more to identify and eliminate muddiness in your writing. Not everyone will become a great writer, but anyone can write with clarity.
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