Overcoming Obstacles to Clarity
This section describes how to improve the clarity of your writing. Clarity depends on choosing words precisely and on training the reader’s attention on the topic through subordination.
Vague Word Choice
Vague words and phrases do not communicate very much. On the other hand, concrete and vivid language presents a distinct and memorable image or assertion. Consider the difference between these two sentences:
It is common, especially in academic settings, for writers to be circumspect when making claims. While this may be motivated by humility, more often it suggests betrays a fear of commitment. The result is that the writer actually says very little and appears hesitant and weak.
Equivocal: “It may not be altogether impossible to read in pre-Nicene Christian writings some elements that could foreshadow creedal orthodoxy."
Direct: “Pre-Nicene Christian writings demonstrate a concern with for the exegetical and doctrinal issues that led to the Nicene formulations.”
The first sentence is full of ambivalence; the reader cannot be sure whether “it may not be altogether impossible…” represents an understatement of the author’s actual view or something about which the author is actually unsure. The second sentence does not speculate about the mere possibility of pre-Nicene elements foreshadowing orthodoxy but asserts directly and specifically that this is actually the case.
Excessively Verbose Language
As Strunk and White memorably put it, “Omit needless words.”
Verbose: “I find it doubtful whether the church can successfully achieve the goal of having its members be fully engaged in the work of ministry without the example set by a plurality of leadership that is instituted through established offices.”
Simple: “I doubt whether our congregants will fully engage in the work of ministry without the officers’ example of active service.”
Lack of Focus
It is difficult to keep your sentences direct and, at the same time, make sure they are not too simple for academic writing. In addition, at a graduate level, theological writing should demonstrate the relation between ideas, concepts, and facts. Effective subordination of background material is an important tool for revealing these relations by using complex sentences.
String of subordinated clauses lacking focus: “Augustine’s City of God was written to refute the claim that Christianity, which was then burgeoning into a larger movement, had brought about the fall of the Roman Empire, which had existed for several centuries without facing many severe threats. This work, which took nearly 13 years to compose, also critiques the pagan system of Roman worship, which involved dozens of specialized gods, and develops the idea that two cities have existed since the fall of Adam, one earthly and the other heavenly. Only the heavenly city was eternally protected from invasion.”
Subordinates background information and keeps the reader focused on the main topic: “Augustine’s City of God was written to refute the claim that Christianity had brought about the fall of the Roman Empire. This work also critiques the pagan system of Roman worship and develops the idea that two cities have existed since the fall of Adam, one earthly and the other heavenly. Only the heavenly city was eternally protected from invasion.”
Other "Writing Clearly and Coherently" topics: