how to tell if you are writing clearly

A 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, which improves our ideas. In the comments, people raised the point that writing may be unclear because it uses specialized terms. Something may be unclear because it is sophisticated. Let me respond to these two points.

First, specialized terminology can be either clear or unclear. The use of specialized terminology is clear if the author uses words that have been previously defined. Clarity may also be achieved if using the term is easier than explaining an idea multiple times. You are unclear if you use words that aren’t defined, or solely because they sound interesting. In other words, if a person spends some time learning the terminology of your subject, then they should have little trouble reading your prose. If they can’t even define your terms, or are lost tracking down definitions, then you are probably an unclear writer. Finally, writing is often unclear if it uses many, many complex and specialized words.

Second, sophistication does not entail a lack of clarity. Rather, I’d suggest that sophistication is about unexpected clarity. Sophistication, which suggests maturity or complexity, is best manifested in writing that surprises the reader. The writer makes arguments, or deploys ideas, in ways that aren’t routine. Like a well told story, the ability to surprise the reader requires that the reader be given a series of ideas that they can easily understand. Complex or unexpected arguments can usually be built from smaller, clearly written ideas.

Finally, let me add that many of our most sophisticated scholars and scientists were extremely clear writers. Richard Feynman, for example, wrote a series of texts that presented a difficult subject matter, physics, with extreme clarity. These texts remain as outstanding introductions to physics. Darwin’s writings, probably the most important in modern science, could be understood by most educated readers. If physics and evolution can be presented in ways that a gifted high schooler could understand, why not social sciences and the humanities?

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Written by fabiorojas

September 17, 2012 at 12:02 am

Posted in academia, fabio

7 Responses

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  1. Thanks for continuing the discussion, Fabio. After the last time, I decided to construct two examples of comparable length that are equally clear, but one is from the physical sciences, and is decidedly “modern”, and the other is from the humanities, and is decidedly “post-modern”. Both are lightly edited versions of material drawn from Wikipedia, I should add.

    1. In the Standard Model, the Higgs field consists of four components, two neutral ones and two charged component fields. Both of the charged components and one of the neutral fields are Goldstone bosons, which act as the longitudinal third-polarization components of the massive W+, W–, and Z bosons. The quantum of the remaining neutral component corresponds to (and is theoretically realised as) the massive Higgs boson. Since the Higgs field is a scalar field, the Higgs boson has no spin. The Higgs boson is also its own antiparticle and is CP-even, and has zero electric and colour charge.

    2. “In language there are only differences,” said Saussure. “A linguistic system is a series of differences of sound combined with a series of differences of ideas; but the pairing of a certain number of acoustical signs with as many cuts made from the mass thought engenders a system of values.” What Derrida calls différance is the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacing by means of which elements are related to each other. This spacing is the simultaneously active and passive production of the intervals without which the “full” terms would not signify, would not function.

    I hope you agree with me that both include “technical” language (including proper names that the reader is expected to know the meaning of. I suppose in 1. it doesn’t matter quite as much who Goldstone and Higgs are, only what a Higgs field and a Goldstone boson is. That may be a real difference in how names circulate in the humanities and physics, but not one that has any effect on clarity.

    I agree with you that there is no reason people in the humanities can’t write clearly. I hope you agree that the above shows that it is possible, even “after deconstruction”. My point is of course also to show that the impression that deconstructionist write “badly” might, in some cases, be owed to the effect of series of technical terms that make even something that is as clearly written as 1. incomprehensible to someone who hasn’t learned the key terms yet.

    Once this is understood we might approach a passage from (my current favorite example) Lisa Robertson’s “The Prosody of the Citizen” with greater tolerance and charity than I am sure many critics of postmodernism (e.g., those who celebrated Judith Butler’s Bad Writing Award) might initially apply:

    3.”Because of the social primacy of this linguistic beginning, and because political space is an effect and an historical accretion of linguistic circulation, I’d like to lay out a prosody of the citizen, where the term prosody describes the historical and bodily movement of language amongst subjects. This opening of the discourse of prosody away from the technical conventions of measure, towards the movements of a generative immateriality, contributes to an interpretation of the domestic sphere that’s aligned with the shifting vectors and intensities of embodiment.” (Robertson 2011)

    I guess one could discuss whether it is “too” technical in one context or another, but surely that’s true of 1. above as well. (Does it really belong in an encyclopedia? we might ask.) But I think it would take a very careful analysis (not just a gut reaction) to determine that “historical accretion of linguistic circulation” is worse writing than “the longitudinal third-polarization components of the massive W+, W–, and Z bosons”. Like you say, she might very well be giving those words exactly the meaning she wants to convey, fully cognizant that her audience is as narrow as the audience for statements about Goldstone bosons.



    September 17, 2012 at 10:12 am

  2. Thanks for the excellent post!

    Allow me to add an amendment about Richard Feynman. He may well have written clearly about quantum electro-dynamics, but the great bulk of his popular works – including and especially his famous three-volume “Lectures” – were transcriptions by others of his lectures. He presented clearly, but his speaking style was not clear and concise. It was colloquial and informal. That he was speaking of physics provided the narrative tension to hold his listeners.

    I do agree, though, that those who know what they are talking about write well. Right now, I am reading A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram (Ph.D. at 20), and <Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (Nobel prize in economics). Earlier this year I read <The Same and Not the Same by Roald Hoffmann (Nobel prize in chemistry). Like Crick and Watson’s <The Double Helix they were easy to read.

    As a technical writer myself this matters to me professionally. Long ago, before MS-Word was a standard, I wrote a manual for a insurance rating program in a DEC VAX environment. The manager asked me to prove that my work was readable. The local librarian helped me to find authoritative books; and from their standards, I wrote a FORTRAN program to parse my documentation. I write at a ninth grade level. Later, in an MS-Word environment, I described the interactive debugger of a multi-processor programmable industrial controller at a sixth grade level. It is not that engineers are illiterate. Rather, when a process line is down, no one is looking for a literary experience.


    Michael E. Marotta

    September 17, 2012 at 2:10 pm

  3. I accidentally deleted YSK’s comment:

    “No doubt writing is important but it shouldn’t become an end in itself. I was recently shocked when I heard a colleague say that, “any fool can do research, it is all about writing and framing”.

    Your colleague is half right. Research is hard, but writing and framing can sink or save a project.



    September 17, 2012 at 6:14 pm

  4. I was just talking with my office mate about writing, and remembered the blurb on the back of Complex Organizations describing it as “almost disarmingly well written”, which I had always taken as a comment on the state of academic writing, but I think your second point is perhaps a better interpretation. There is good, clear writing, and then there is writing that presents arguments and information in ways that are surprising (or disarming) in their creativity.



    September 17, 2012 at 10:08 pm

  5. One of my colleagues once said that people who have a problem writing in fact have a problem with thinking. Although this is maybe a bit harsh since some very bright people cannot write, there is a lot of insight in the statement. It is much easier to write clearly when you know what you are saying.

    (One example of a genius who couldn’t write is Ludwig Wittgenstein who had a really bad dyslexia and could only write in short disconnected paragraphs. This is supposedly the reason for awkward “§” format in Tractacus, according to Hintikka.)

    Relatedly, Weick acknowledges in the intro to his 2000 book (the collection of papers.. umm.. “making sense of organization”) that he wasn’t always full clarity of all the ideas he wrote and the ones he had most clarity about ended up having the most impact. When things are not expressed clearly, it probably means the author has not understood the implications of their data or claims entirely yet.



    September 18, 2012 at 2:59 pm

  6. @Michael E Marotta, I have it on authority that Wolfram is a crank :)


    Michael Bishop

    September 20, 2012 at 11:46 pm

  7. […] how to tell if you are writing clearly ( […]


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