Clarity Fixes: Six Common Obstacles to Clear Writing and Some Solutions

If your writing reads like a convoluted pile of legal mush, consider these common obstacles to clarity, and some solutions.

Problem 1: We haven’t clarified our thoughts yet.

It is so much easier to write clearly when before your first draft (and between drafts) you outline your points and order them logically. Show how they support your conclusions. Then, outline your opponents arguments to identify where they go wrong. Decide how to attack them.

Look at your outlines and determine whether your brief structure reflects the logic of your arguments and counterarguments. If it doesn’t, make sure there is good reason for the difference.

Problem 2: We are unwilling to ruthlessly edit our first drafts.

When writing the first draft, we are usually still clarifying our thoughts. As we express points for the first time, we are still discovering logical relationships among ideas. And often, our minds are hit with nuances that we did not consider before; so we take a first stab at addressing them.

All this happens rather haphazardly.

That’s why we should not fall in love with our first drafts. We must ruthlessly edit them. There is no reason to drag our reader through the chaotic history of our first thoughts.

Problem 3: We try to say too much in one sentence, clause, or phrase.

Stop overloading your reader’s attentional resources. As best you can, unpack complex ideas into bite-sized pieces. Delete unnecessary detail.

Problem 4: The reader doesn’t know the purpose of our writing.

Using strong introductions and topic sentences, tell your reader what information you are about to present and why. Otherwise, the relevance may not be obvious.

It is natural for the brain to disregard information until it seems relevant. Show it in advance. Or, by the time your reader understands the relevance, it may be too late.

Problem 5: We haven’t presented enough background.

Don’t assume your reader knows what you know. If there is relevant background that will help your reader understand your ideas, provide it.

But don’t go overboard. No need for a treatise.

Problem 6: We haven’t provided containers.

It is much easier for your reader to find information if it knows where to look. Use different sections to organize different topics, claims, arguments, etc. Use headings and previews to indicate what a section is about (and, by implication, what it isn’t about).


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