Clarity reflects the quality of being easily understood and remembered. This writing lesson emphasizes cleanliness of thought and style for advanced students and focuses on audience perception.
An advanced writing lesson.
Click link to access slide show presentation. Slide show.
A) Go from old to new information
Introduce your readers to the “big picture” first by giving them information they already know. Then they can link what’s familiar to the new information you give them. As that new information becomes familiar, it too becomes old information that can link to newer information.
Here is a sentence that is not as clear. It moves from new information to old information:
The disappearing of traditional culture is in a new movie. Many films I’ve seen recently have just been merely entertainment, but some movies have worthwhile themes.
This one is clearer:
Many films I’ve seen recently have just been merely entertainment, but some new movies have worthwhile themes. A theme of one new movie is the disappearing traditional culture.
B) Be careful about placement of subordinate clauses
Avoid interrupting the main clause with a subordinate clause if the interruption will cause confusion:
Here is a sentence that is not as clear (subordinate clause embedded in the middle):
Corporate spying, because of the growing use of computers to store information, is increasing rapidly.
This is clearer (subordinate clause at the end):
Industrial spying is increasing rapidly because of the growing use of computers to store and process corporate information.
clear (subordinate clause at the beginning):
Because of the growing use of computers to store and process corporate information, industrial spying is increasing rapidly.
C) Use active voice
Sentences in active voice are usually easier to understand than those in passive voice because active-voice constructions indicate clearly the performer of the action expressed in the verb. So use active voice unless you have good reason to use the passive. For example, the passive is useful when you don’t want to call attention to the doer (remember business formal) when the doer is obvious, unimportant, or unknown; or when passive voice is the conventional style among your readers.
For more on this topic, consult an OWL at Purdue handout on active and passive voice.
not as clear (passive):
A decision was reached to change the plan. (we don’t know who or how)
The committee decided to change the plan.
D) Use parallel constructions
When you have a series of words, phrases, or clauses, put them in parallel form (similar grammatical construction) so that the reader can identify the linking relationship more easily and clearly. Note how, in the examples below, it is not merely a grammatical convention.
not as clear (not parallel):
In Okinawa, where the threat of typhoons is very real, we learned that it is important to become aware of the warning signs. There are precautions to take, deciding when to take shelter is important.
In Okinawa, where the threat of typhoons is very real, we learned that it is important to become aware of the warning signs, to know what precautions to take, and to decide when to seek shelter.
E) Avoid noun strings
Try not to string nouns together one after the other because a series of nouns is difficult to understand. One way to revise a string of nouns is to change one noun to a verb.
unclear (string of nouns):
This report is an explanation of our education quality improvement project.
This report explains our project to improve the quality of education.
F) Avoid multiple negatives
Use affirmative forms rather than several negatives because multiple negatives are difficult to understand.
unclear (multiple negatives, passive):
We did not think that he was not unlikable.
We did not find him likable.
G) Avoid overusing noun forms of verbs
Use verbs when possible rather than noun forms known as “nominalizations.”
unclear (use of nominalization):
His argumentation in the debate was successful.
In the debate, he argued successfully.
He argued his side of the debate successfully.
H. Choose action verbs over forms of be
When possible, avoid using forms of be as the main verbs in your sentences and clauses. This problem tends to accompany nominalization. Instead of using a be verb, focus on the actions you wish to express, and choose the appropriate verbs. In the following example, two ideas are expressed: 1) that there is a difference between television and newspaper news reporting, and 2) the nature of that difference. The revised version expresses these two main ideas in the two main verbs.
Unclear (overuse of be verbs):
One difference between television news reporting and newspapers is the time between the actual happening of an event and the time it takes to be reported.
Television news reporting differs from newspapers in the time it takes to report events.
I) Avoid unclear pronoun references
Be sure that the pronouns you use refer clearly to a noun in the current or previous sentence. If the pronoun refers to a noun that has been implied but not stated, you can clarify the reference by explicitly using that noun.
Unclear (unclear pronoun reference):
With the spread of globalized capitalism, American universities increasingly follow a corporate fiscal model, tightening budgets and hiring temporary contract employees as teachers. This has prompted faculty and adjunct instructors at many schools to join unions as a way of protecting job security and benefits.
With the spread of globalized capitalism, American universities increasingly follow a corporate fiscal model, tightening budgets and hiring temporary contract employees as teachers. This trend has prompted faculty and adjunct instructors at many schools to join unions as a way of protecting job security and benefits.
Unclear (unclear pronoun reference):
Larissa worked in a national forest last summer, which may be her career choice.
Larissa worked in a national forest last summer; forest management may be her career choice.
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