A few years ago, I discovered an interesting segue in an article by philosopher George N. Schlesinger. While relating moral integrity to the selection of articles for academic journals, he recites journal editor J. Scott Armstrong’s “author’s formula” for publishing scientific studies. According to Armstrong,
Authors should (1) not pick an important problem, (2) not challenge existing beliefs, (3) not obtain surprising results, (4) not use simple methods, (5) not use full disclosure, (6) not write clearly.1
Every one of these “rules” is cringe-worthy, but the last one is the kicker. You can bury all kinds of nonsense in mangled prose, forcing the reader to spend extra time sorting out exactly what you are trying say before they can even begin to assess the value of your work.
Yes, there are times when we want to use language that may be unclear or have multiple interpretations, such as in poetry and continental philosophy, both of which actually exploit the vagueness and ambiguity of language to make the reader think differently about a subject. However, most of the time clarity is required, and it’s the author’s job to provide it. So how do you do this?
Get it Straight
Maybe some people really are just lousy writers, but most of the time the problem is that the writer
- doesn’t recognize that they are not making their point clear;
- isn’t entirely sure what they are trying to say in the first place; or
- relies too heavily on jargon and big words.
The issue presented in (1) isn’t one I can easily help you resolve here. It’s very hard to be objective enough about your own work to pick up on every weakness. Make sure you enlist the help of friends, family, colleagues, or an editor to help you strengthen your written work, but remember that it takes practice and careful consideration to learn how to read your own work the way someone else might. It isn’t easy, and no one does it perfectly.
On the other hand, (2) can be dealt with more strategically.
If you’re going to write, you need some idea of what you’re writing about, and that idea doesn’t have to be perfectly circumscribed at the outset. You have to start somewhere, and you may as well start with that fuzzy notion that you can’t quite pin down.
Start brainstorming. Make thought webs. Create charts and graphs. Draw stick figures having conversations. Whatever process gets your thoughts out of your head and into some more concrete form is going to help you congeal the slippery tangle of incoherent thoughts into an intelligible proto-argument or story outline. Getting all this stuff down in a way that you can use is the first half of the job.
The second half, of course, is organizing all of this content in a way that other people can use. Now you really need to buckle down and identify relationships between hunks of information, and how you do this is going to depend on what kind of thing you are writing.
If you’re writing a story (fiction or otherwise) you’ll need to work out a rough timeline of events, describe your characters and their relationships with each other, identify major themes and any moral lessons you want to embed in the story, etc.
For essays, articles, and various types of persuasive materials, you would do well to organize your main points in order from starting assumptions and premises to the final conclusion (or, at least, the conclusion you initially expect to reach) so that you can more quickly see the structure of the argument and identify any false or questionable premises and determine the relative strength of your inferences at each step. Naturally, you’ll want to cull weak lines of argument.
Once you have taken these or similar steps, you’ll be in a better position to write your first draft. If you’re still feeling hesitant, create a point-form draft — you can fill in the details and create proper sentences once you have a better idea of what it is you are trying to say.
Keep it Simple
Perhaps you know what you’re trying to say, but maybe you’ve said it in a way that isn’t particularly intelligible. Poor organization or generally sloppy writing are usually the culprits, but even a structurally and grammatically sound document can become pompous, boring, and confusing if you insist on throwing around big words just because you can.
The usual advice is “consider your audience”. Think of the level of expertise or reading comprehension of your target audience. Are they beginners, intermediates, or experts? Experts can handle more difficult language than beginners or even intermediates, who may still be learning all of the lingo. Think about whether they are reading to learn or reading just for pleasure and adjust the difficulty level accordingly.
More importantly, however, you need to be considerate toward your audience. Just because you are trying to reach a more expert audience doesn’t mean you should liberally pepper your paper with gigantic words. Terms of art (i.e., phrases that have a specific meaning within a particular context) will be appropriate, but turning big words into shortcuts may reduce clarity instead of enhancing it. You still need to cut out the jargon. Focus on choosing the right word, not the most impressive one.
Using plain language is not “dumbing down” your work. It’s writing clearly, and everyone, even experts, can benefit greatly from a well-written article that is relatively easy to follow.
For free resources on this topic, visit the Plain Language Association‘s website.
- George N. Schlesinger, “Truth, Humility, and Philosophers” in God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason, ed. Thomas V. Morris (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1994), 258. ↩