clarity is important

“Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be put into words can be put clearly.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

– Charles Mingus

“The complaint about bad writing is about the most banal cop-out in all of academia, if for no other reason than that (as here) it is trotted out as a final kick-in-the-groin to a text the critic believes is already beaten to the ground for other reasons. “False, not insightful, not informative. There. And you’re badly written!”

– Andrew Perrin, an orgtheory commenter

The scholar values clear writing because the purpose of reading, for the scholar, is consumption, the devouring of truth. Unclear writing slows learning. Extremely unclear writing prevents learning.

The scholar who respects their work also values clear writing. If they have worked in good faith on a book, they believe that it contains the truth.  Other people may benefit from reading that book. Thus, unclear writing hinders the main purpose of the scholarly text, which is to help others understand what has been learned through research and argument.

Even the egotistical scholar, who seeks fame, should value clear writing because it maximizes the number of people who might be able to understand the content of the text. Unclear writing may impress a narrow circle, and thus yield professional rewards, but it limits how many people can ultimately read and understand an idea.

Unclear writing erodes the scholarly community. The reader suspects that the author hides behind words. Those who are suspicious of learning point to bad writing as evidence of vacuity among scholars. Among scholars, poor writing creates rifts. Criticism and evaluation, the lifeblood of the scholarly world, are hard to come by when even the most generous readers find it hard to comprehend a text.

Some ideas persist despite their presentation and are worth the effort of discovery. Thus, clarity does not trump all. Poor writing is not a fatal flaw in a text. Rather, it is a cost, a tax on the mind of the reader. Unless it is absolutely necessary, it is better not to pay, lest good ideas be lost.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 4, 2012 at 12:01 am

15 Responses

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  1. (I ask this genuinely) have you ever stopped to think about how subjective standards of “good” or “clear” writing is? In other words, the problems posed by the reality that these standards vary across disciplinary and many other boundaries? Or is this kind of thing too “pomo” for you?

    Even though I think that variation exists even within disciplines I am willing to concede that disciplines have a “shared” conception of what is good and clear writing. But no way do I think shared standards exist outside of the disciplinary context, and especially not across other academic and non-academic genres. And yet, like you, I still often have to devour texts from philosophy, cultural studies, anthropology, political science, etc. Not to mention lay audiences: many of the texts recognized as most “accessible” in sociology, I confess I cannot give them to my parents to read. Likewise, how do you feel about the proposition that it may be harder to write clearly about some things than others? For example, perhaps it is easier to describe and explain concrete empirical phenomena clearly (as in the social sciences) than it is to speak clearly about higher-order abstractual content as is typical of philosophy and theory? Not to give anyone a pass, but I think some topics are so difficult to write about we have to applaud when people genuinely make an effort to do so, even if it cannot quite achieve the clarity of an AJS article about how black women navigate social welfare. If you’ve thought about this kind of stuff, I have never seen evidence of it in the posts you write.

    On the other side of the coin, another problem may be that people confine themselves to write about simplistic things so as to avoid the trouble of having to come up with new and potentially awkward language, but of course this potential issue never gets discussed.


    Soft Scientist

    September 4, 2012 at 2:57 am

  2. “It is by universal misunderstanding that all agree.” — Baudelaire
    This is closer to the later Wittgenstein.

    Tractatus is early Wittgenstein. Later he more or less concedes that “clarity” is an illusion if not embedded in the ability to get something done. Ambiguity or vagueness is always present. It may not matter. You can’t observe a “meeting of the minds.” You can only observe if coordination is effected.


    Edward G. Rozycki (@ERozycki)

    September 4, 2012 at 2:59 am

  3. Edward, fetch me that slab!



    September 4, 2012 at 5:30 am

  4. “It is one thing to make an idea clear, and another to make it affecting to the imagination. […] In reality, a great clearness … is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever.” (Edmund Burke)

    Just want to put that out there as counterpoint. For my part I’m torn. I like clarity in writing too. But I think Andrew is right in the particular case. There is something unnecessarily ill-tempered in Fabio’s objection to bad writing. And it certainly can’t be right that “the purpose of reading, for the scholar, is consumption”. If that’s what “clear writing” is supposed to make possible, I’m ready to go full Finnegan “past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay” to sabotage it. At least to slow the thing down.



    September 4, 2012 at 7:15 am

  5. I write. I have sold over 300 newspaper and magazine articles about business, technology, and culture. As a technical writer, I described at a sixth grade reading level the interactive debugger for a multiprocessor industrial controller programmable both graphically and lexically. It was easy because I understood what I was talking about. Most of my technical documentation is at a ninth grade level because when a process is in a failure mode, no one is looking for a literary experience. Returning to college and university (2005-2010), I read many journal articles in sociology and criminology. Most were clear. Some were horrible. You write the way you think. The style of presentation is different, but the essence of identification is the same: either you know what you are talking about, or you do not.


    Michael E. Marotta

    September 4, 2012 at 12:47 pm

  6. For academic books, if a reasonably bright undergraduate can’t understand it, it’s unclear.


    Eric S

    September 4, 2012 at 1:52 pm

  7. In general, clear writing is better than unclear writing, in the same way that pleasant music in an elevator is better than unpleasant music in an elevator: it makes the trip to one’s chosen floor nicer. But unpleasant music in an elevator does not condemn the elevator ride itself, as the main point of the elevator ride is not the consumption of music.

    It’s not unreasonable to ask readers to do some work to understand an argument. Indeed, there are some arguments that specifically demand a kind of inclarity because they are about problems of transparency as a representative philosophy. Postmodernism–Fabio’s fave–is a prime exemplar of this.

    Other arguments are just complicated in their core, and again, require specialized knowledge and reader attention to comprehend. Consider the following:

    All supernova peak magnitudes are standardized using a SN Ia light-curve width-luminosity relation. The measurement yields a joint probability distribution of the cosmological parameters that is approximated by the relation 0.8ΩM-0.6ΩΛ≈-0.2±0.1 in the region of interest (ΩMlesssim1.5). For a flat (ΩM+ΩΛ=1) cosmology we find ΩMflat=0.28+0.09-0.08 (1 σ statistical) +0.05-0.04 (identified systematics). The data are strongly inconsistent with a Λ=0 flat cosmology, the simplest inflationary universe model. An open, Λ=0 cosmology also does not fit the data well: the data indicate that the cosmological constant is nonzero and positive, with a confidence of P(Λ>0)=99%, including the identified systematic uncertainties. The best-fit age of the universe relative to the Hubble time is t0flat=14.9+1.4-1.1(0.63/h) Gyr for a flat cosmology.

    An important finding by a Nobel prize-winning physicist. I don’t understand it, and I’ve got a Ph.D. from the world’s best university and have spent over a decade on the faculty of another word-class university. Clearly illegitimate.

    I stand by the quote that starts Fabio’s entry.



    September 4, 2012 at 2:49 pm

  8. Andrew – there is nothing clearer than an equation if you understand the language of math. I don’t think that paragraph lacks clarity, it’s just that it wasn’t intended for an undergrad / orgtheory audience. You and I may not understand it, but the message couldn’t be clearer if you happen to speak the language of physics.


    brayden king

    September 4, 2012 at 2:55 pm

  9. Sure. And “Structured structures predisposed to act as structuring structures” couldn’t be clearer if you happen to speak the language of French sociological theory. If clarity is relative to the reader’s pre-existing knowledge base it has no meaning at all.



    September 4, 2012 at 3:05 pm

  10. Ouch, Brayden got there first, but,yep, Andy’s quote is perfectly clear.



    September 4, 2012 at 3:09 pm

  11. There are two quite different issues with clarity, the use of technical or specialized language, and the clarity of sentence structure and prose style. If you parse Andy’s physics quotation, the sentences are quite straightforward and you can tell that if you knew what the terms meant, you could follow the text. Similarly, “structured structures predisposed to act as structuring structures” parses properly if “structured structures” has one well-defined meaning and “structuring structures” another. There are other sentences I read (typically written by students) that fall apart when parsed: they don’t mean anything at all.

    There’s also a cultural issue about writing style, which is addressed in a video “Writing Across Borders” produced at Oregon State. The American writing style is “tell ’em, tell ’em, and tell ’em”, i.e. you say what you are going to say, you say it, and you say what you said. There is a premium on directness. This is not how people are taught to write in other cultures. I’m very American myself in my writing/reading preferences, but this did teach me to think differently about what is going on in writing across cultures.



    September 4, 2012 at 3:25 pm

  12. I think OlderWoman names the problem/debate perfectly: “There are two quite different issues with clarity, the use of technical or specialized language, and the clarity of sentence structure and prose style. If you parse Andy’s physics quotation, the sentences are quite straightforward and you can tell that if you knew what the terms meant, you could follow the text. Similarly, “structured structures predisposed to act as structuring structures” parses properly if “structured structures” has one well-defined meaning and “structuring structures” another. There are other sentences I read (typically written by students) that fall apart when parsed: they don’t mean anything at all.”

    The question then becomes whether you are willing to extend the courtesy to someone like Foucault or Deleuze of creating a “technical or specialized” language and thus being clear on their own terms, or whether you are going to hold them to the standards of “any smart undergrad should be able to read it” and thus hold them to a very different standard. I think this debate in sociology in particular is influenced by our awkward position as being a subject that sometimes feels like well-developed common sense plus a bit of data (the undergraduate social problems feel) and sometimes feels like an empirically-minded variant of continental philosophy. The first privileges accessibility and denies the value of the technical language (outside of statistics, a technical language borrowed from a more unproblematically technical field), the second stresses the need to learn to “speak” the complex languages Andy and OlderWoman point to and thus treats accusations of bad or incomprehensible language as a failure on the part of the reader as much or more than the author.


    Dan Hirschman

    September 4, 2012 at 4:10 pm

  13. Dan, to follow up on your point (and the excellent points by OW, Andy and Brayden), it’s important to remember that we can help decide how much knowledge our readers have to bring to the table. Do we expect them to have a lot of prior knowledge before our work makes any sense? Do we expect them to be a smart undergrad, or professional scholar with different areas of specialization?

    Based on the way we write, we can help choose our audience. We can choose a broad audience or a specialized one. Obviously, different scholars will make different choices, but it is a choice we make. As a very helpful peer reviewer explained to me, even statistical results can be presented in a more readable way to reach out to social scientists with a minimal background in statistics.



    September 4, 2012 at 4:35 pm

  14. I love to try to turn debates like this into topics we can empirically investigate. Here are two ways of measuring comprehensibility. 1) “Who is capable of understanding this text with what references”? and 2) “How long does it take people with particular backgrounds to understand”?

    The next step would be to make efforts to improve the comprehensibility of a given text, and repeat the tests. How much was comprehension improved/eased, and did it require increasing the length of the text?

    At one end of the spectrum is “a reasonably bright undergraduate can understand (and that means explain) your language without any time spent looking up definitions or consulting references.” At the other extreme would be if celebrated scholars with the same academic specialty could not agree about how to interpret a 3rd colleagues work.


    Michael Bishop

    September 6, 2012 at 6:31 pm

  15. […] few weeks ago, I argued that it was important for scholars to write clearly. Clear writing maximizes our audience. It also makes our ideas easy to understand and criticize, […]


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