Clarity (in Speech and Writing)

Clarity refers to a judgment on the part of audience that a text is clear, lucid, and understandable. Clarity is a stylistic principle, an element of style. Communications that audiences consider to be lucid and understandable tend to be audience-sensitive: they account for what the audiences already knows about the topic and how the audience expects the message to be delivered (e.g., an appropriate voice, tone, persona, genre). Moreover, works that evince clarity tend to be associated with other prized elements of style, especially brevity, simplicity, flow, unity.

Clarity is like this riverbed: it's illuminated

What is Clarity ?

Clarity refers to a judgment on the part of audience that a text is clear, lucid, and understandable.


Works that are described as being clear may also be described as lucid, understandable, and devoid of any ambiguities. Clarity may also be associated with Accessibility, Usability, or Readability.

Related Concepts: Rhetorical Reasoning; Organizational Schema; Paragraph Schemas; Usability; Vague Language


Why Does Clarity Matter?

Clarity is Goal #1 of most written and oral communications. If your audience cannot understand your message, all is lost. Without clarity, you are wasting your time and the time of your audience.

Readers are willing to overlook a few soft spots in a text or presentation, but once the errors and lapses begin piling up, they are likely to stop reading.

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

William Zinsser, Clarity, from On Writing Well

Clarity @ the Global Perspective

The global perspective concerns the whole document as opposed to a section, paragraph, or sentence. You can create clarity at the global level by

Many global, rhetorical issues play a supersized role in whether an audience finds a text to be comprehensible, such as

  1. Has the writer…knowledge worker… correctly assessed the audience’s understanding of pertinent scholarly conversations surrounding the topic?
  2. Has the writer…knowledge worker… stripped away superfluous information and remained focused on a thesis, research question, hypothesis?
  3. Has the writer…knowledge worker… organized the information logically? Is the rhetor’s purpose, thesis, and organization explicitly stated or obvious?
  4. Does the page design, overall design, visual rhetoric, medium, and genre empower a rhetor to keep the audience’s focus on the purpose and thesis?

Clarity @ Local Perspective

Clarity at the sentence and paragraph level (aka the the Local Level) is often associated with Diction; Brevity, and Flow, Coherence, Unity. Additionally, a rhetor’s use of language at the local level affects readability:

  1. The use of active voice rather than passive voice tends to aid reading comprehension.
  2. The use of an effective subject rather than a vague one aids readability.
    1. See Sentence
  3. Diction, grammar, mechanics, punctuation—breakdowns in these conventions are likely to lead to murky writing.

How Can I Edit for Clarity?

Editing for Clarity is an exercise in audience awareness and The Elements of Style.

Related Concepts: Rhetorical Analysis; Rhetorical Reasoning; Reasoning with Evidence; Simplicity

Editing @ the Micro and Macro Levels

Writers, speakers, and knowledge workers . . . edit for clarity at the micro and macro levels:

  • At the macro level, Editing for Clarity is a thought exercise: it’s an exercise in flexibility, openness, and reasoning.

    Understandably, after you’ve invested precious time in a document, you may be loathe to trash it. Yet that’s what Editing for Clarity is at the macro level:
    • a willingness to be critical, to revisit the thought processes that informed how you composed the text, to critically revise the text.
    • a willingness to accept the possibility that you were a bit too self-absorbed, that aspects of your texts are writer-based rather than reader-based, All that translates into practice as a willingness to discard large chunks of texts, maybe even the entire text.

      All that translates into practice as a willingness to discard large chunks of texts, maybe even the entire text.

What is the Difference between Editing for Clarity and Proofreading?

When proofreading, you are reading line-by-line and correcting the diction, sentence structure, sentence patterns, and so on.

In contrast, when Editing for Clarity, you are engaged in higher-order thinking. Rather than just checking for grammar and mechanics, you might be

  • empathizing with your audience and trying to imagine how they might respond to some external sources you’ve woven into your texts
  • cutting 50% of the words in a text, realizing less is more
  • ensuring the thesis or research question or hypothesis is a clear through line running through the text.

Strategies for Editing for Clarity

Editing for Clarity is an act of courage and professionalism: you need to embrace simultaneously conflicting processes: believing and doubting

You need to be open to the possibility you can make a text you’ve composed more clear for the intended audience.

  1. To begin, review Brevity; Flow, Coherence, Unity; Simplicity
  2. Next, engage in rhetorical analysis of your rhetorical situation. Job number 1 is empathizing with the audience. You want to write from their perspective, not yours. To do so, consider considering the audience-analysis questions outlined at Audience.
  3. Once you know how conversant your reader is with the scholarly conversations about the topic, and once you know the emotional hot spots for the reader, you can begin prewriting, revising, and editing.
  4. As soon as possible, even when in the planning stage, you are wise to seek critical feedback on your texts. Ideally, you can meet with your audience and have them review your plans before writing. If that’s not possible, maybe you can pitch them an early draft. Inexperienced writers may think it’s wiser to wait till a draft is more polished but in truth once you fall down a rabbit hole you can lose perspective and work away slavishly on something that really doesn’t need to be written.

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