Two Rules for Eliminating “Unclarity” In Your Writing (and a bonus)

2200971734_82453bc61a_oHere are two places where writers regularly destroy clarity. Get these wrong and you’ll lose your readers — and you’ll also be judged (plus, a postscript on using commas correctly).

After talking in an earlier post about how even the bedrocks of technical writing (precision, clarity, and concision) are driven by the reader, I do have to admit that there are some mistakes that are “reader-independent,” mistakes that writers make frequently and that fail for everyone, mistakes that destroy clarity (or, if you prefer, create “unclarity”), mistakes that make me crazy.

When readers stumble across these mistakes, they get confused. When I find them, I react more….aggressively. I’m a grumpy person at the best of times so I get downright nasty when I find these errors (as an editor, for example, I start wondering if I should be hiring someone else to write for me). It’s not just me who feels this way, either. Stanford university lists my first topic (pronouns) as number 4 on their list of the top twenty errors in undergraduate writing. My third topic (commas) appears as numbers 2, 7, 11, 13, and 16 on the same list. How Stanford missed my second topic (synonyms) is a mystery to me.

I recognize that it’s not completely the writers’ fault: These writers’ teachers actually encouraged those writer to use the parts of the English language that lead to making these mistakes.  However, I find that doesn’t make much difference to the judgments I pass on these writers. As we teach in our technical writing course, these problems are easy to avoid: Just ignore some parts of the English language altogether.  Below you will find 3 ways to achieve clarity in writing.

Proper Use of Pronouns

For example, pronouns (he, she, they, it, they, we, you, I) often create unclarity. I recently ran across this example in a newspaper (I’ve rewritten the sentence both to protect the innocent and to avoid violating copyright):

Fred Trout says his team-mate Alberto Milkwin admitted that he intentionally hit him.

As you dwell on the phrase “he hit him,” you have to wonder: Did Fred hit Alberto or did Alberto hit Fred? The good news is that, in this case, we can figure it out. Alberto is doing the admitting so the “he” is probably Alberto. That means the “him” is probably Fred. But, while you can figure it out, why would any writer force you to do that? Why not just replace both pronouns and say “…that Alberto intentionally hit Fred”? Even replacing just one of the pronouns would make life easier for the reader: “…that he hit Fred.”

And how about this sentence, from another news story:

The sheriff informed the suspect that if he hit him,….

I have no idea whether the sheriff is warning the suspect that the suspect is about to be hit or warning the suspect about the consequences of hitting the sheriff. No reader could figure this out from the sentence alone (later in the story, I discovered that it was the second case: The consequences of the suspect hitting the sheriff).

The problem with pronouns is that you know what you mean when you write the sentence: It’s clear to you who each she/her/he/him/it is. I’m sure the writer who created the sentence about the sheriff knew exactly who might hit who, for example. Unfortunately, your readers only have access to the words on the page, not to the thoughts in your head.

There are some pronouns that are safe to use: I, me, you, and we are almost always safe (“I” is you, the writer; “you” is the reader; “we” is the organization you both belong to). In a sentence, a single pronoun that refers back to the last person or topic you mentioned in the same sentence, will probably avoid creating unclarity.

But why make your writing life more difficult with these decisions? Make your life and your reader’s life easier by just putting in the name of the person or thing you’re referring to. Pronouns: Just say “No.”

Proper Use of Synonyms

When you were in school, your teachers taught you lots of words that mean the same thing (they’re called “synonyms”). Your teachers also encouraged you to use those words and avoid repeating the same word over and over again. Again, however, your teachers had goals that aren’t compatible with communicating effectively: Your teachers were trying to grow your vocabulary.

Here’s an example we use in the course and that I drew from an email from one of my clients:

There is a great computer software package that is an excellent match to the way we operate our business. We can buy the system. In addition, a time keeping application would make it much easier for us at our annual audit every year.

In those three sentences I’m not sure if we’re talking about three things — the “software package”, “the system”, “a time keeping application” — or one thing (as it turns out, one thing). I’ve been guilty of this myself. On one project I used seven different terms to refer to a single screen in a program (“sales order screen”, “sales order entry screen”, “sales update screen”, …). To this day I worry that my readers thought we had seven different screens that all looked very much alike.

Again, your readers only have access to the words on the page and, if your words change, the natural assumption is that the thing you’re talking about has changed. In technical writing your best strategy is to pick one word to refer to anything and use that word to the exclusion of all others (it’s sort of like marriage that way).

Postscript – Proper Use of Commas

One last note because I can’t stop myself from mentioning this: If you use a comma to mark off a phrase in your sentence then make sure you put the second comma (the one that marks the end of the phrase) at the end of the phrase.

This is a mistake that’s easy to spot: Just remove the words inside the commas and see if the resulting sentence is one you want. As an example, I found this sentence on a blog while I was writing this post:

Computer programmers, at the least know how to program computers, not fix them.

The second comma is in the wrong place, as testing shows. After removing the material inside the commas we have a sentence that no one — least of all, the writer — wants:

Computer programmers not fix them.

The second comma should follow “least” (you can apply the test to see if I’m right by removing the words between the commas):

Computer programmers, at the least, know how to program computers not fix them.

In this sentence it wouldn’t be wrong to include a third comma after “computers” but, these days, most writers would omit it. Personally, I’d include it and write this sentence:

Computer programmers, at the least, know how to program computers, not fix them.

Notice that the test to see if the commas are in the right place still works:

Computers programmers know how to program computers.

By the way (and because I’m a nice guy), I’ll pass over that the writer really meant “at the most” rather than “at the least,” because he was marking the upper limit of a programmer’s knowledge, not the lowest. But I’m like that: Sweetness and light, unicorns and kittens, that’s me.

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