Let me be clear! How do I tell when I need to clarify my writing?

I taught a workshop for supervisors recently about assisting your students to write. I said that one reason why our students write badly is because they cannot tell whether their writing is good enough. When they read their own writing they only see what they intended to say, not what is actually written, so they can’t tell if it is clear or coherent or whether it flows.

If I’m right, then the key to teaching writing is enabling our students to recognise when they are unclear. Once you can tell that your own writing is unclear you will find out how to write clearly, and you will keep working on your writing until it is clear. You will seek out or develop strategies for clarifying your own writing. However, if you can’t tell if your own writing is clear, it doesn’t matter how many strategies for clear writing that you learn, because you won’t see the need to use any of them.

One way we can enable our students to write better is to help them see the difference between clear and unclear writing (just as a wine connoisseur can taste the difference between a good wine and a bad wine). We might ask them to read well-written journal articles and theses so they can see examples of clear writing, or we might point out where their writing is unclear and explain why, or we might suggest they read their own writing out loud so they can more easily hear anything that is unclear. Yet it is also very important if we, their supervisors, explain how we recognise when our own writing could be clarified, so our students will have a process to emulate.

So, I challenged the participants of my writing workshop to explain to their students how they tell when their writing is unclear. But how do I do this? Somehow I notice when my writing needs clarification and I make it clearer, but how? It is a mystery to both myself and my students.

To figure out how I clarify my own writing I ‘reverse engineered’1 my mysterious process of thinking. Basically I clarify my writing by comparing what I mean with what the words actually say, and trying to make these match. Sometimes I have to change the words I wrote to clarify what I mean as I was vague, ambiguous or unclear about what I actually meant. Sometimes I have to change the words I wrote because they were not clear and did not match what I was trying to say. As part of this iterative process I found six things I did, or thinking moves I used, to discover if my writing was unclear. I use these at any time, and in any order in my writing process.

  1. I ask myself ‘What do I want to say? What do I mean?’ as I free-write my pre-drafts and first-drafts. For example, I want to say something about learning theories, and I first write: “Experiential learning is one kind of learning theory.” But this is not what I want to say as I instead want to emphasise that this is the main learning theory in the article I am writing. So I change it to: “The main learning theory is experiential learning.”
  2. I ask myself ‘What do the words actually say? Do they match what I mean?’ For example, I wrote that experiential learning was the “main learning theory”, but this is not what I meant, because it is merely one of many learning theories. What I meant was that it is the learning theory that I will focus on in my article. So I clarify the writing: “The learning theory that I focus on in this article is experiential learning.”
  3. I look for anything in my writing that needs clarification or elaboration. I frequently do this by asking myself ‘What do I mean by…?’ or ‘What will the reader need to be explained?’ For example, the term ‘learning theory’ needs to be explained, so I clarify my writing by adding: “A learning theory explains the mechanisms by which learning occurs.”
  4. I ask myself: ‘Is there any chance of ambiguity? Does my writing allow for multiple interpretations? Is there any chance that a reader might misunderstand or take a different meaning to the one I was intending?’ If I find anything that is ambiguous or vague, then I ask myself ‘How can I re-write it so that the reader is more likely to get what I meant?’ For example, the term ‘experiential learning theory’ is guaranteed to be ambiguous because any abstract term like this is used by different people in different ways, and I have not clarified how I am using this term. So, I clarify my writing by adding: “Experiential learning theory is learning by doing.”
  5. I give my writing to a reader and ask for their reaction. If they are confused or puzzled, or if they miss something important or interpret the writing differently from what I meant, then I need to clarify. I have to figure out what led the reader to the puzzlement or misinterpretation, and then correct this so they are likely to get what I intend. For example, a reader might say “I’m confused by what you mean. I have no clear idea about what learning by doing is.” Or they might ask me “What do you mean by doing? Doing what? How do you learn by doing? What is the process?” To clarify my writing I would need to answer their questions.
  6. I also look for any exceptions to what I wrote, as this will indicate where I have not clarified what I mean. For example, I wrote that “experiential learning is learning by doing” so I would ask myself: “Are there any examples of experiential learning that do not count as doing? And are there any examples of learning by doing that do not count as experiential learning?” If so then I have to clarify what I mean by acknowledging the exceptions.

NOTE: This blog post is about writing that aims to convey the author’s intended meaning clearly to the reader. This seems like a plausible view of academic writing in journal articles, but it is not a universal approach to good writing. I’m not sure it would be appropriate for novels or poetry for example.

[1] Golding, C. (2011) Educating for Critical Thinking: Thought-encouraging questions in a community of inquiry, Higher Education Research and Development 30(3), 357-379.

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About Clinton Golding

Clinton Golding is Associate Professor at the University of Otago Higher Education Development Centre. His previous positions include Philosopher in Residence at Rangitoto College in Auckland, and Thinking Coordinator at Queen Margaret College in Wellington and St. Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, where he worked to develop the thinking of staff and students. He was also a senior lecturer at The University of Melbourne where he received 5 local and national teaching awards.
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