Bringing It All Into Focus: Clarity, part 1

Looking to bring a little clarity to your writing?

Here are some tips that might help you do just that.

     At the risk of being Clarity Clarence, myself, the two things that will bring more clarity to your writing are for you to know what you want to say and to know who is reading what you say.

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 I know, I know I know something, but what was it again how to start how to start this paragraph ugh! it sounds obvious, doesn’t it? When we aren’t really sure about what we want to say or how to best go about saying it But, not understanding who much this can lead to confusion being vague  not thinking things through  this is what students struggle with and causes a breakdown prohibits clear communication in most student writing more than weak writing skills or not understanding an assignment.  And, hey, everyone has to it’s not just students who struggle with this.  I’ve probably deleted and retyped what I want to say in those previous two few couple two sentences at least ten times as I tried to get my brain to work without coffee figure out precisely what I wanted to say and the clearest, most concise way to say it.  Most of us, whether we realize it or not, write to figure out what it is we want to say–even if we plan ahead, have an outline, do some pre-writing activities, etc.  Having a general idea of where we want to go might be fine with getting a first draft together, but unless we know precisely what we want to say,  This paragraph perfectly illustrates my point.  I knew exactly what I wanted to say, or thought I did until I started actually writing  trying to get the ideas from my head onto the paper computer screen. State why this isn’t so obvious, state how to try to be clearer, and move on. How hard can that really be?

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Evidently, harder than I thought.

Something  A strategy that is often helpful in determining how clear your ideas are, is to ask someone you trust to read a passage from your writing and then have them explain the ideas in it back to you in their own words.  Focus on a concrete portion of the draft.  The thesis, for example, or the first point you are making.  Don’t ask them to read the whole thing  paper at once because that will tend to lead them to because they are doing this for free, after all. The more manageable the section is, the better feedback you will get.  If someone can read your words, internalize them, make meaning from them, and then express that meaning in their words–voila! Communication has occurred! Yay!

     When working on a writing project, you also want to make sure you allow yourself enough time to do all of the pre-writing that you need to before you sit down to write.  I’m not just talking about creating a brain map or outline here (although those are good, too!).  I’m talking about allowing yourself to figure out what you really do think about your topic.  And what you know about it.  If you are working with sources, you’re going to need extra time to make sure you really understand them, too.

     Sure, you’ve read them.  Hopefully, you’ve also taken notes on them and annotated them.  But, if someone asked you about the ideas in them, could you tell the person about them in your own words?  If you find your recollection of them vague, or you have to keep going back to the source to figure out what it says, then you need to spend some more time with that source figuring it all out.  You can’t write about that which you do not know.  And if you can’t communicate it to someone else, you don’t really know it.

     Now that you know the information, you need to figure out what you think about it.  Rare is the college paper which just asks you to find information and report back about your findings.  Usually some sort of critique, or evaluation, analysis or synthesis of ideas and sources is expected.  The higher level thinking required for these tasks takes time, and not just a chunk of time the day or so before your paper is due.  Remember what I said earlier about writing to discover what you know?  This is where that’s going to come into play. It might involve several false starts (See all the strikethroughs in the paragraphs above.) before you hit your stride. (Notice how there are less of them now?  That’s not just because I stopped including them. It’s because I finally figured out what I wanted to say and how to go about doing it.)

     After you get a draft down which says what it is you think you wanted to say, you still need to allow yourself a day or so away from the draft.  During this time, you want to occupy your time with things other than your writing project (even if that’s with other writing assignments).  This does two things: 1) It lets your brain work on solving problems in your project without you getting in the way of that happening by obsessing about them, and 2) It gives you “fresher eyes” when you come back to the draft to read it at the end of this time so you can see what it says vs. what you thought you might have said more clearly. When you go back to your draft with “fresh eyes,” be sure to read through it aloud. This will help you approach it more from a reader’s perspective than reading it silently to yourself will.

     Another strategy to help you determine clarity is to create a reverse outline.  When you do this, you create an outline based on the draft you have written instead of creating a draft based on an outline as you normally would.  Read through your draft paragraph by paragraph.   Can you identify the thesis? Can you pull out the main idea of each paragraph and the support you give?  Once you’ve done this and created your outline, look at what you have.  Does the main  each body paragraph support your thesis? Does the evidence in each paragraph develop what the topic sentence says the paragraph is going to discuss?  If the answer to any or these questions is no, then you now know where you need to work on your clarity.

     Do some of the paragraphs have more than one main point?  Is it hard to determine the main point (s) of any of them?  A “yes” to either of these indicates further work in clarity in those places. How similar is this outline to your original plan for the paper?  If it’s considerably different, think about why.  Yes, sometimes plans change, and if you’ve made conscious decisions to change the content of your paper as you go, that’s okay. However, if you are surprised by what you see or if your reverse outline seems to wander off track here and there and circle back to your original plans, this is probably a good indicator that your paper will be confusing to your readers at these points.

     The other consideration, as stated above, is knowing your audience. I know, I know, your audience is your teacher, right?  That’s the person who’s going to read your paper. While, that’s true, teachers usually do this sneaky thing of wanting you to write for a “real audience.” This means, they want you to consider who would read your work if it were published somewhere. Then they want you to adjust your writing to fit the expectations of that audience. Writing a critical book review for your history class?  Generally other academics or historians interested in the topic your book covers would read those.  An argument essay on what happens when children are exposed to several hours of media each week?  Educators might read that. It’s more likely that parents would, though, right?

     Once you’ve determined who your audience is, you need to figure out what they are likely to know about your topic before reading your paper, what their beliefs or attitudes about it might be,  what you need to tell them for them to understand what you’re saying, and how to tell them in a way that they are most likely to listen to you and understand what you are saying.  Here are some tips to help you with that:

  1. Don’t rely on your readers having prior knowledge of any of your source material to create your paper. Explain concepts fully and use precise citations for information that isn’t yours.  Don’t say “That guy in the article said…” What guy? What article? They aren’t going to know because they haven’t read it.
  2. Don’t rely on your readers having prior knowledge about the assignment guideline in order to follow what you are saying or trying to accomplish in your paper.  Give them clear context for what you want them to do with the information you provide and how it fits into the scope of your larger purpose in creating the paper.
  3. Define any specialized terms that a lay person who had not done research wouldn’t know and avoid using jargon whenever you can.
  4. Match your word choice to an expected level that your audience members would have.

For more information on adapting your writing to meet audience expectations, visit the OWL at Purdue. If you need help determining your audience, visit The Writing Studio at Colorado State University.

Now that you know more about how to take your audience into consideration when writing and how to assess the clarity of your thinking and writing when putting a draft together, you should be more successful in communicating your ideas and demonstrating the skills your teacher is looking for in your writing.  Check in with us next week for the second part of our discussion on clarity.  It will focus on tips to help create clearer sentences and paragraphs.

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