Revising for Clarity

by Natalie Pond & Hanne Jensen

Revising for Clarity

Imagine you are reading a paper, and you come across this passage—how would you respond?

Moreover, both Wilder and Murray communicate either incomprehensibly or illogically, further shedding doubt on their abilities to provide Jack with any form of truth at all. Ultimately, Jack discovers Murray’s linguistic dissection of the sublime to be over-generalized and therefore incomplete in comparison to Wilder’s inaccessible embodiment of the sublime, which presents fewer demands on Jack’s thinking and a simpler, safer example to follow.

These sentences are grammatically correct, complete thoughts. Yet they don’t quite do the work of a piece of writing: that is, they don’t make their intended meaning expressly clear for the reader.

“Clarity” is at the core of all writing. Writers put in effort in the hopes that their words will be read and understood, for a grade or otherwise. This blog identifies a few strategies to approach the nebulous task of “revising for clarity,” and to posit some of the pitfalls possible in attempting this revision process.

  1. Remove “non-essential” words.

This in itself is not particularly clear advice. Let’s refine it! Some helpful places to start removing or improving words include:

  • Eliminating “to be” verbs.

Example: Students writing clearly is the professor’s primary concern. The professor wants students to write clearly.

The more active verb “wants” replaces the “to be” verb of the first sentence, which makes the sentence less awkward, and forwards its point more effectively—to describe the relationship between the professor and his or her desire for students to write clearly.

  • Removing the passive voice.

Example: The research paper was affected by unclear writing Unclear writing affected the research paper.

In this example, the sentence should convey that the problem at hand is unclear writing. However, in the first sentence, the passive sentence construction constructs “the research paper” as the recipient of the action and thus the focus of the sentence. The second sentence fixes this problem by turning “unclear writing” into the active agent, which clarifies the concern of the sentence.

  • Taking out words that are synonymous.

Example: The paper was smart and intelligent. The paper was smart.

Although one could debate the interchangeability of smart and intelligent, if these terms are not explicitly defined in the paper, it seems much more logical to select one adjective in order to avoid redundancy.

  • Taking out words that do not contribute to the sentence’s overall argument.

Example: The writer understands the way in which their writing is confusing, and wants to improve it. The writer understands that their writing is confusing, and wants to improve it.

Excess phrases like “the way in which” simply distance the reader from the point of the sentence—cutting these words does nothing to the meaning of the sentence; it only helps the reader by removing the excess.

2.     Use simpler constructions to explain ideas, where possible.

Example: The professor’s advice had the effect of improving the student’s writing The professor’s advice helped the student’s writing.

In tandem with our earlier suggestion to remove words that do not contribute to the sentence’s overall argument, this example shows how removing those words and streamlining the sentence with an active verb creates a sentence construction that simply but clearly makes its point.

3.     Avoid repeating the same idea in similar wording from one sentence to the next.

Redundancy is not just a concern within single sentences—it is easy to restate the same ideas over and over again in slightly different wording. Ask yourself, which sentence describes the idea best? Are their specific words or phrases from multiple sentences I like that could be combined into a single, clearer sentence?

4.     Use the best words, not the most words.

In some ways, this is a reiteration of some of our previous advice, but it is a good mantra to consider. A few choice words can go a long way, and avoid the problem of losing your reader out of confusion or even boredom.

5.     Sympathize with the reader.

What information does a reader have to know? What idea(s) must be contained in this one sentence? Is it possible to separate sentences, cut excess phrases that only detract from the ideas, or try any of the other suggestions mentioned in this blog to help the reader’s understanding? What context might they need to understand your thought? All these are questions to ask in thinking about the reader’s point of view, as someone completely new to your thought process and understanding your idea.

Just for fun, check out how some of these ideas can help that first confusing passage we showed you:

Moreover, both Wilder and Murray communicate either incomprehensibly or illogically, further shedding doubt on their abilities to provide Jack with any form of truth at all. Ultimately, Jack discovers Murray’s linguistic dissection of the sublime to be over-generalized and therefore incomplete in comparison to Wilder’s inaccessible embodiment of the sublime, which presents fewer demands on Jack’s thinking and a simpler, safer example to follow.

TO:

Jack struggles to understand Wilder and Murray, because their modes of communication fail to express ideas clearly. However, he perceives that Murray’s language, which is pretentious and academic, cannot truly grasp any notion of the sublime, while Wilder’s seemingly incomprehensible crying mystically captures the sublime even without words.

This revision attempts to incorporate our suggestion of “use the best words, not the most words.” The verbs are now more active; excess “to be” verbs were slashed and replaced; and vague terminology such as the “inaccessible embodiment of the sublime” has been revisited to get at the same idea with improved, more directed words.

Hopefully these suggestions will help with overall clarity. But, as is the case with most aspects of writing, simply following these instructions won’t guarantee that your writing will be “better.” There are a few more things to consider when “revising for clarity.”

1. Who is your audience?

The purpose of writing varies based on the project. An instruction manual for a chainsaw is, in many ways, quite different from a poem. Differences in writing styles and purposes also has an effect on what “clarity” means for that project. The chainsaw manual should probably be extremely literal, leaving no room for personal interpretation, whereas the poem has more leeway to be purposefully vague or metaphorical. The same is true for a personal essay versus an academic paper versus a lab report. Most of the techniques we propose above are generally good ideas to employ, but you may find yourself needing to tweak them for your purposes.

2. What is getting lost?

Sometimes the only changes in revision are beneficial. Often, however, revising is a balancing act between clarity and style. Many sentences seem flat after revision, bereft of cadence or longer, more complex words. Sometimes the original emphasis disappears with the “non-essential” words. Try to notice what you edit out as you revise– does the sentence still convey the same message when you’re finished?

3. Unpack your ideas!

Many students who struggle with clarity (particularly repetition, long or overwrought clauses, and over-inflated language) are facing word-counts, page limits, or the pressure to write “academically.”

But often, the writing is not the root of the problem. Confused paragraphs that reiterate one idea with slight variations reveal an unexamined problem: the writer does not know precisely what she wants to say. More often than not, unclear writing is a symptom of unclear thinking. This is not to say that the writer doesn’t understand what she means or what she wants to say. Quite the contrary! More complex ideas often take more time to sort out, particularly when they must be formatted into clear, readable prose. Consider the following example:

“In A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle, Milton emphasizes the role of dialectic discourse in unifying traditional ideals of virtue with the importance of chastity as a means to understand the power of purity and choice in being a virtuous person.”

This thesis statement combines several ideas, but it isn’t necessarily clear how they work together. Is the point that “Milton emphasizes” or that he uses “dialectic discourse”? How does chastity’s “importance” differ from “traditional values” in the first place? These questions need answers before the writer can revise.  While she might know how to revise phrases like “as a means to” or “in being a,” which are somewhat vague and certainly avoidable, the underlying message of the thesis hasn’t been clearly sorted out.

Luckily, revising ideas and revising the writing itself work together to illuminate each other. Choosing certain words over others can help you understand the underlying ideas better. Thinking through what you want to say can help you be appropriately critical with the words you choose.

Ultimately, “revising for clarity” is always a personal and somewhat individuated process. Each paper demands a different kind of clarity, each writer has different goals, and each issue points back to a different problem. However, the techniques and tricks we’ve presented here should be helpful in a variety of situations, and can be adapted to almost any writing project. Just remember to sympathize with your reader, and better yet, as you revise invite another real set of eyes to consider your paper (a tutor in the Writing Center, perhaps?). This will make those confusing parts apparent, if they weren’t already.

Happy clarifying — and check out some of these sources about revising for clarity which also provide specific examples of sentence-level revisions:

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/981/03/

http://web.ccis.edu/Offices/AcademicResources/WritingCenter/EssayWritingAssistance/ImprovingClarityandAnalysisinWriting.aspx

http://blog.cambridgecoaching.com/blog/bid/291060/Writing-Tutor-Clarity-and-Garden-Path-Sentences

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