Thoughts on Clarity

I’ve been talking a lot about clarity in my tutoring sessions lately. What makes this sentence unclear? What can you do to change it? What does it mean to be vague? I’m sure we have all encountered these questions at one point or another over the course of our writing lives. But when I really try to pinpoint the issues that surround an unclear sentence or passage I have to dig deeper than simply “it’s not clear.”

As American academic writers, we are used to the reader taking us by the hand and leading us to solutions. We want things to be easy to understand. We don’t want to look to the previous sentence or paragraph for help. We want coherence. The strategy I’ve been using so far with students is to cover their paper and ask them to explain a concept or passage in their own casual language, like they would a friend. What usually happens is these “casual” explanations are far more elegant than the jumbled words they have written in their word processor.

And I was here once too, not very long ago. A favorite professor of mine asked me to explain a difficult concept that I had garbled with academic jargon in an attempt to sound practiced and wise. I explained the concept, she smiled, and said, “why don’t you just write that?” She continued to encourage me to trust my own voice, to trust my ability to explain concepts verbally and to trust my own sense of clarity rather than what I thought was academically appropriate.

Now, I encourage my students to do the same in terms of their own intellectual trust. The truth is, our students are incredibly smart. They can do things that I can’t even dream of doing, they can write on subjects whose basic principles I struggle to grasp. They have a strong sense of their own intellect that, for whatever reason, gets buried in the pressures of writing that flawless academic paper, of making the grade that they believe they need. Just knowing that you, as a writer, have the capacity to generate clear and cohesive thoughts is a powerful weapon in combating all the doubts and academic fears that surround collegiate writing. I hope that my students are as encouraged as I was when I heard those words, “trust your voice. You know more than you think.”

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