The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing

By Michael Harvey | Go to book overview
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2 Clarity

MOST OF US think our writing is clearer than it really is. We know what we mean, so we see it in what we write. But good writers see their words from the reader's perspective, because clarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Good writers ask, “Does my reader understand the words I'm using, in the way I'm using them? Have I explained enough so that she knows what I'm talking about? Is my evidence persuasive? Have I thought about possible objections? Is there a logical arrangement to my argument that will help the reader follow it? Have I used good links and transitions to keep her pointed in the right direction?”

One problem in answering these questions is that readers differ, so there's no one standard of clear writing. A general audience, for instance, needs more background and explanation than a scholarly one. Unless you know your audience, it's impossible to be assured that what you're writing will be well-received. Most undergraduate essays should be aimed at an audience of one's better classmates unless a teacher says otherwise. Such a standard will help you decide how much to explain, what terms to define, and what tone to strike: competent, disciplined plainness.

People tend to perceive a sentence as clear when its “narrative”— generally, the story it tells or the relationship it describes—corresponds to its grammatical structure. In other words, if you wish to write clearly, begin by making your narrative's characters the subjects of sentences, and their actions and identities the predicates. Some examples:

This process is called continental drift. over time it has reshaped the sur-
face of the earth.

Lavoisier gave Priestley's “dephlogisticated air” its modern scientific
name, oxygen.

On December 11, 2001, China formally joined the World Trade Organiza-

Early in his career Shakespeare wrote two narrative poems.

Historically, most patriarchies have institutionalized force through their
legal systems. (Kate Millett, Sexual Politics)


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