Writing Clearly

To my experience, unclear papers are mainly—but not exclusively—due to the 1386719358496following eleven factors:

  • Overall lack of organization. Papers lacking overall logical coherency are usually due to the writer not bothering with an outline first. Write an outline!
  • Poor transitions—or none at all. A paper with poor or no transitions has no sense of flow or direction, and is a jarring experience for the reader. Use appropriate transitions to guide the reader smoothly through the logical development of your ideas.
  • Lengthy, awkward sentences. The point is to clarify, not confuse. Write short, powerful sentences that get your point across cleanly. Be concise!
  • Poor syntax. Sentences that make the reader go “huh?” usually contain poor syntax, the ungrammatical arrangement of words, phrases, and clauses. Grammatical units need to be in the proper order. Also watch for “dropped” words (words inadvertently omitted or deleted).
  • Run-on sentences and comma splices. A run-on sentence (also called a fused sentence) is when two sentences or independent clauses are run together without punctuation. A comma splice occurs when two sentences are linked with only a comma. These problems are often due to the misuse of commas. Commas should not just be tossed at the page after you have written words on it. There are rules for where commas and other forms of punctuation should be placed.
  • Sentence fragments. A sentence fragment is only a part of a sentence. A sentence must contain at least one full independent clause. A full independent clause has both a subject and a verb. A sentence fragment is missing one or the other. A fragment is repaired by either pulling it into a nearby sentence or by turning it into a sentence. How would you fix the following fragment? “Socrates walked through the marketplace. Listening hard for snatches of philosophical conversation.
  • Ambiguous relationship between antecedents and pronouns. A pronoun refers to or replaces a noun, noun phrase, or previously mentioned pronoun. The word the pronoun replaces is known as the pronoun’s antecedent. A pronoun should always refer to a clear and definite antecedent. For example, in this sentence (“Socrates tells Euthyphro that he doesn’t know what piety is.”), who does the pronoun “he” refer to, Socrates or Euthyphro? Avoid writing sentences like this.
  • Lack of verb/pronoun agreement. A singular antecedent (one that would take a singular verb) is referred to by a singular pronoun (e.g., “A philosopher cares for his soul.”) A plural antecedent (one that would take a plural verb) is referred to by a plural pronoun (e.g., “Philosophers care for their souls.”).
  • Needless shift in tense. Tense refers to the form of the verb that indicates time. In general, tense should remain consistent throughout a term paper. For example, it’s awkward to write “Meno walks up to Socrates in the marketplace and tried to start a conversation” because the tense shifts from present to past. It’s much better to write “Meno walks up to Socrates in the marketplace and tries to start a conversation”—the tense stays in the present tense. Be consistent in tense, and consider sticking to the more active present tense throughout your paper.
  • Poor choice of words. The writer has heard a word that sounds impressive, or which sounds like it would fit in the context of the sentence. Unfortunately the word chosen does not have the meaning the writer thought it had. Though the effect is often comic, it does not impress. Avoid fancy or foreign words. Always use a dictionary if you’re not sure of a word’s meaning.
  • Needless repetition and redundancies in expression. The writer didn’t bother to read the whole draft aloud, and allow their ears to check the work of their eyes. Make your main points once, make them in the right place, and make them well. No need to make the same point over and over again. Also avoid locutions that use two verbs, like “He then acted to shed light on the question at hand.” All verbs denote action; in this case the more descriptive verb is “shed.” Therefore it is unnecessary and redundant to write “He then acted to shed light…”.  Just write “He then shed light…”. The verb “acted” here is redundant and superfluous.

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© D. R. Koukal