Clarity in Writing

Clarity sits high atop the lists of important elements of writing. The more effort you put into achieving it, the less work your reader has to do to understand your paper. This handout will deal with the issue of clarity in two forms: clarity of words and clarity of thought or argument.

CLARITY OF ARGUMENT

  • Know why you are writing. What is the purpose of the paper? Of each paragraph? Of each quotation? You want those purposes to be evident to the reader.
    • Each paragraph should reinforce the thesis you have set forth in the beginning of your paper.
    •  Each sentence should reinforce the purpose of the paragraph.
    •  Explain your quotations. The connection between them and your argument must be made apparent.
  • Make sure that what is holding your argument together — a thesis, a research question, or an organizing idea— is evident to the reader. If you cannot state your argument in one or two sentences, a reader who may be unfamiliar with your topic will have difficulty picking it out.
  • Consider repetition of your argument as reinforcement. Although you want to avoid redundancy, repeating your argument—in different words and with further development — can be helpful in making it clear to your reader.

CLARITY OF WORDS

  • Define key terms. Do not assume that your reader has the same definition of freedom or masculinity as you do. Make sure to define technical terms, as well as common words that you use in a special way. Set up your definition early so that your paper works from these assumptions.
  • Evaluate long sentences and try to achieve greater conciseness. Deliver the information as succinctly as possible. Sometimes long sentences are necessary, but avoid sticking on strings of dependent clauses.
    • Unclear: Yossarian is a pivotal character in Catch-22 because, despite his cowardice, which is not the insanity the military claims it is, and despite his bawdiness, which is actually an attempt to hold onto life, he defies the archetypal hero figure to represent the reality of the modern hero.
    • Better: Yossarian’s cowardice and bawdiness defy the archetypal hero figure, yet this conflict makes him a more powerful character in that he represents the reality of the modern hero.
  • Avoid using jargon and big words. A sophisticated idea does not always require sophisticated language. The strength of your paper lies in your ability to present your argument effectively, not your ability to use big words.
  • Use specific language. Avoid generalizations. Clear, specific language is more powerful than general or abstract language.
    • Unclear: The meaning of this assertion of femininity goes back to previous eras.
    • Better: This interpretation of femininity dates back to the Victorian era.
  • The pronoun “this” by itself is also an example of vague language. “This” should be followed by a noun to clarify or iterate its meaning.

Be your audience’s guide. Lead them through your points one at a time and explain everything.

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